Editorial: What’s On Your Desk? | AIChE

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Editorial: What’s On Your Desk?


This is an expanded version of the Editorial that appeared in the print version of Chemical Engineering Progress, November 2015.

Researchers at Cornell Univ. photographed more than 200 kitchens in Syracuse, NY, to determine whether the food sitting out on counters could predict the weight of the woman living in each home. They found that women who had breakfast cereal sitting on their counters weighed 20 lb more than their neighbors who didn’t, and those with soft drinks sitting out weighed 24–26 lb more; women who kept a fruit bowl on the counter weighed about 13 lb less than their neighbors. Brian Wansink, professor and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, called this phenomenon “your basic See-Food Diet — you eat what you see.”

Reading about that study got me thinking about what our desks and workspaces reveal about us. Are your stapler, tape dispenser, paperclips, and pens within reach on your desk, or tucked away in a drawer? Do photos of your family or notes and reminders hang on your cubicle wall? Is your desk neat or messy? Albert Einstein famously quipped, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”
Intrigued by that question, the folks at Made to Measure Blinds UK prepared an interesting infographic that spotlights 15 inspiring workspaces belonging to icons of literature, art, and science (www.madetomeasureblinds-uk.com/blog/2015/08/18/inspiring-workspaces). Geoffrey James, a contributing editor for Inc.com, categorized those workspaces and their owners into seven types:

  • creative clutter — your desk is covered with documents and notes because you’re more interested in ideas than in making things tidy (best represented by Albert Einstein)
  • minimalist — your desk is no-nonsense; you’ve got the tools you need to get the job done, with no distractions (Marie Curie)
  • the game room — because you tend to have bursts of creativity followed by periods of relaxation when you collect your thoughts and ponder what to do next, you keep games and gadgets on your desk to occupy you during periods of down time (Mark Twain)
  • the organizer — your desk is organized, with a place for everything and nothing out of place (Thomas Edison)
  • wired up — your office is control central, connected to everyone and everything; you have multiple computers — a PC, laptop, tablet, smartphone, and Apple Watch — as well as all the gadgets that go along with them (Nikola Tesla)
  • the garden — your desk is likely near a window and holds a plant or floral arrangement, because you must feel connected with nature to do your best work (Virginia Woolf)
  • home sweet home — you like to work surrounded by the objects and people you love, at a desk displaying your favorite knick-knacks (Charles Darwin).

Organizational behavior specialist Jay Brand says that, “a clean desk isn’t always a sign of a productive employee. In fact, a clean desk can hinder worker efficiency.” He explains that traces of a person’s thoughts are consciously and unconsciously off-loaded into their surroundings; he calls this off-loaded information cognitive artifacts. In essence, the workspace becomes an extension of the mind. Brand points out that the key to successful organization is individualism — determining how you remember your tasks and projects, and then cognitively reengineering your workspace so that these items are placed where you can quickly retrieve them.

Organizational expert Peter Walsh offers an image that might put you in the right frame of mind to begin such reengineering. He told Fastcompany.com that he imagines his desk like a car. “Everything you need most immediately — the steering wheel, radio, ignition switches, indicators, door handle — is at arm’s length. Things that are not needed regularly are two arms’ lengths away, such as in the glove compartment, and the things used infrequently are in the trunk. Your desk should be exactly the same. When you’re sitting at your desk, the only things you should be able to touch are the things you use all the time.”

If order is important to you, here are a few tips for decluttering your workspace:

  • Take time to clean. To prevent clutter from becoming unmanageable, spend five minutes at the end of each day to clear the surface of your desk. Designate a 15-min appointment each week for more extensive cleaning and organizing.
  • Reduce. Don’t be a pack rat — keep only what you need. Put all the office supplies that are on and near your desk in a box; for a week, track what you take from the box and how often to identify your true supply needs. Generally speaking, 80% of the stuff people file away and 60% of what they keep on their desks is never looked at again, says Brand.
  • Prioritize placement. Keep only what you use most often on your desk. Put everything else in drawers, with your most important tools in top drawers closest to your dominant hand. Place your most important papers and projects in the area that gives you the most effective visual cues and reminders. Keep flat surfaces clear, and don’t leave papers and other work supplies on the floor. Replace your inbox with a vertical step file holder.
  • Rearrange your cognitive artifacts. Sticky notes, lists, charts, and so on lose their impact and become virtually invisible if left alone. To refresh their significance, move them around so you will look at them differently.
  • Go digital. Store information digitally, for instance with a contacts app and a tasks app. However, digital storage can become cluttered as well. Declutter your computer desktop; install a nondistracting wallpaper, organize icons into folders, and remove all unnecessary icons. Organize your email into folders.
  • Use color cues. Sort projects by type or by due date, and color-code them for easy identification and prioritization.

If you walk through any office supply or home furnishings store, you might be amazed at some of the nifty gadgets designed to help you organize and store your possessions. To patent them, their inventors first had to demonstrate that the products were novel. The article starting on p. 38 will help you understand the concept of novelty so you can identify patentable ideas in your engineering work.

Finally, as you consider what to keep and what to toss, be aware of other research that Wansink conducted earlier, which a press release summarized as “Candy on the desk is candy in the mouth.”

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