My client ushered me into his office while chuckling “I had always believed that a clear desk meant an empty mind, but I guess this means my mind is overflowing!” Indeed his desk was stacked with papers, an extra keyboard – because the old one stopped working – books, and folders. The stacks had migrated to the floor and the credenza behind his desk. His tone turned solemn. “Seriously, I’m overwhelmed. I don’t know where papers are, and I feel like I’m on a slippery slope.”
Situations like this happen for a reason. It’s my job to discover the reasons and develop strategies to reach the client’s goals.
In Bob’s case (not his real name), a colleague’s recent move to another company meant his workload was doubled. In the past Bob’s systems barely kept him in control of his work. But with the increased workload, he was now drowning.
For Bob: out of sight means out of mind. Bob’s not alone. Approximately 60% of the population is very visual. For this group there is a tendency to leave items out in the open as reminders that some action is needed. You can appreciate why Bob would think that a clear desk was anathema to productivity. But when the “reminders” start to accumulate they form “visual wallpaper.” It is impossible to discern the individual tasks. The whole becomes a large, menacing “to-do.” It’s enough to paralyze the most stout of heart. The lessons in this case are valid for most of the population.
We started with a strategy of “divide and conquer.”
We spent the morning sorting through each stack. Eleven banker’s boxes were labeled with ”do it now”, “do it yesterday”, “file it”, “personal”, “shred”, “goes somewhere else”, and the name of each of the five projects he was currently responsible for. I picked up each item, and Bob assigned it to a box.
For Bob “do it now” and “do it yesterday” were more meaningful than “important” and “urgent”. Every label must be subjective in the way it prompts the user.
Setting up a box for items to shred or put to away elsewhere helped us remain focused on the task of categorizing. With the major sort into categories completed, we began the minor sort.
Starting with the “do it yesterday” box, the next action for each item was written down on each document’s upper right-hand corner and put in a stack of items with similar actions. In the end we had divided the urgent items into many stacks: “call”, “email”, “discuss”, “research”, “follow-up” and “read.” This exercise was repeated with the “do it now” and “personal” boxes. For the project files we noted the next action in planning.
An open desktop file box containing hanging folders was set up on Bob’s now cleared desk. Each folder was labeled with an action item category, and the tabs were arranged alphabetically. Arranging the tabs in a staggered fashion insured that every tab was visible. We added two more categories: “hang-on to these” and “file it”. The “hang-on to these” folder mainly holds reference items that will be needed soon: for example, the agenda for an upcoming meeting. Bob was able to prioritize within each category by putting the most urgent items at the front of each folder.
As Bob completed each action he noted the new next action, and he filed the item accordingly. Eventually all necessary actions would be completed, and Bob can note the name of the file under which the item should be filed. Now Bob’s assistant can do the filing with very few, if any, requests for direction from Bob.
The cycle of noting the next action and filing the item put Bob in control of his workflow. When he chooses to make calls, he has all the items that need calls grouped together at his fingertips. The open file box keeps work handy, organized and visible without cluttering the desk. Also it is easier for Bob to delegate work to his assistant.
All in all, Bob felt very satisfied with the system. And to his surprise he found that his clear desk encouraged focus, productivity, and planning.