Muddled Mess or Merely Work in Progress?

What do our surroundings say about us? If we choose to work in an office strewn with bits of paper, open files, journals and other debris, is this a testament to the fact our minds are on higher things and we are misunderstood geniuses? Or does it simply indicate that our parents didn’t berate us enough as children to keep our rooms tidy? Here I’m not referring to an office full of decaying banana skins or mugs decorated with interesting strains of bacillus. That’s just unhygienic and only indicates slovenly habits. I’m talking about the office with piles, neat or otherwise of ‘work in progress’.

I’m driven to ponder this question by some remarks written about me recently. An interview in our local newspaper (the Cambridge News) described the room that I inhabit as a ‘quaintly chaotic office’. (I can’t post a link to this since, as far as I can judge, the interview was deemed interesting enough to take up 2 pages in the newspaper but not interesting enough to be put online. That seems a bit strange, but no doubt they understand the reading habits of their clientele).  I can’t say that I think this description is unfair, or at least I understand the chaotic bit although I’m less clear why it is also described as quaint. Perhaps because they feel that this is what an old-fashioned professor’s room ought to look like. Whatever, it has caused me to think about the way I operate.

I blame the REF – don’t we all, for everything!  But the truth is that, right now, I am stuck in the midst of trying to bring together the various bits of documentation and the necessary number of these ‘bits’ is depressingly large. I have the unenviable task of chairing our ‘unit of assessment’s’ REF panel and so it is my responsibility to keep track of everything. Being a large unit, encompassing both the Cavendish Laboratory itself (the Physics Department) but also the Institute of Astronomy, we have around 16 impact cases to submit, which are each going through multiple iterations. I keep meaning to file them neatly, but that requires a clear stretch of time to sort through them that so far my diary has not permitted. So they simply pile up on the table, along with spreadsheets of who we are entering and what their outputs are, plus drafts of the necessary impact and environment statements (again in various annotated iterations). As I say these are sitting on my table, the table that is supposed to be kept clear so that students are able to spread out their results (on laptop or on paper) when they come to discuss them with me.

REF desk2

My office this Sunday afternoon, as I battle with the mountain of paperwork that represents the REF to me.

But, easy though it is to blame the REF, that can only explain away the piles on the table. My desk, the other ample surface in my room, no, that is my responsibility and is customarily little better. So what is my excuse for this? As a child I was a floor dweller. I used to do my homework on my bedroom floor and I always knew which pile of books corresponded to which subject. Once a week I had to pick them up and place them on some surface so the floor could be vacuumed, but immediately thereafter everything would return to their proper place on the carpet.  Unfortunately, that is not a sustainable way of working in an office environment. Nevertheless, I still try to work by piles – the separate piles corresponding to papers associated with different research topics, for instance – but, since they are on my fairly large desk and no one dusts its surface, they never need to get moved.  Then there is the post (not much of that these days, but still some) that I’m always going to answer but since I haven’t worked out what the answer is yet, it can linger on my desk a little longer. Indeed, each letter or invitation can linger there until it’s past its sell by date and when I next encounter it I can throw it away with a clear conscience. There’s the teaching material, the stuff I’ve come across I want to incorporate next year or lists of tweaks I want to make to existing slides; these notes can sit around from the end of one course to the start of its successor a year later. Finally, there are the papers associated with committees. These do get moved along quite fast, since I have to take them to the committee meetings and then they can get either shredded/chucked or filed, depending on circumstances.

What this indicates, of course, is that I haven’t caught up with a paperless office. I am still trying to adjust to using an iPad for committee meetings, as previously directed, and having tried for a year or so I am firmly of the opinion that I can’t operate that way when I am chairing meetings.  I can’t switch fast enough between the different agenda papers when they’re virtual, or keep track of where the agenda is going. Some committees likewise haven’t caught up with the electronic age and insist on sending papers in envelopes. Emails I can usually handle without generating any paper copy. Unless, that is, I want to remind myself of their content on a train (when 3G may still not be sufficiently reliable to permit instant access) in which case they get printed out for ease of reference. I still prefer to annotate student papers and draft theses in hard copy if I can, so that is another form of paperwork that spreads around. Paperwork that I’m going to work on during that next trip to London accumulates in its own happy pile, although not for long in this case since my trips are so frequent.

So what’s the moral? Is the problem that I am just irredeemably untidy, or that I’m trying to juggle too many balls? Is a clear desk policy, beloved of some organisations and meant to indicate that each task is successfully completed by the end of every day and no potential privacy issues can be breached by material being left accessible (in my locked office? Hmm.) really the ideal I should be striving for? I have always felt a clear desk is symbolic of nothing going on that takes more than a day to complete. Nothing in my life feels like that is an accurate description. I am sure a tidy office is a new trick this old dog can’t be taught. I’m sorry if visitors find it chaotic (even if quaintly so) but for myself I can’t imagine another way of working despite now being armed with an iPad.

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10 Responses to Muddled Mess or Merely Work in Progress?

  1. Rachel H says:

    I’ve tried to explain to people that I have a pile filing system – it looks messy but I can find stuff. And I’d forgotten that I did my school & university work mostly on the floor surrounded by paper & books. I feel judged as inefficient by people at work sometimes because I don’t clear everything away, so I’m so pleased to hear that you’ve achieved all you have without a tidy desk

  2. cromercrox says:

    Worry not. Untidiness is a symptom of life, which is of course another system maintained far from equilibrium. J. R. R. Tolkien once wrote a letter to one of his sons, in theme much like your post, in which he had to take time out to tidy up his home office. Untidiness, he wrote, is a sign of ‘literary or phililogical speculation’. And one person’s untidiness is another person’s order – it’s all a matter of perspective. Gee Minor’s room gets very little attention from either Mrs Crox or myself. Gee Minima doesn’t strew her clothes randomly on the carpet. To her, it’s a perfectly valid storage system, which we call a ‘floordrobe’.

  3. Brigitte says:

    I bet this story is false, but I was once told twenty odd years ago or so that, when at Oxford, Daniel Dennett had a great ‘system’ of dealing with paperwork. Everyday, so I was told, he would put the letters he got on top of his desk or other surfaces and by the end of the day he would put the daily newspaper he had read on top of the letters, and so on. When somebody came and asked: Have you read the letter I sent you on such and such a date, he would rifle through the piles interspersed with dated newspapers, would then find the letter in question and reply to the request if necessary. That’s what I call ‘quaintly chaotic’! I can’t even remember when exactly I heard that story (I should have kept the newspaper of that day) and who told it to me, and as I said, I don’t even know whether it is true. But it’s a good story.

  4. I doubt it tells you anything at all about science. But I would say that because my office is an appalling mess. The worst case so far is when I had to move from an office that I’d occupied for decades. A piece of chocolate was discovered under a pile of papers, or rather some shredded aluminium foil left by a mouse.

    I think that this results partly from a reluctance to throw things away (a habit that I’ve found useful more than once), but mostly because I’m normally doing several things at once. That’s got worse since I started blogging as well as still doing some science.

    If it’s good enough for JBS Haldane, it’s good enough for me.

  5. John Luffrum says:

    I too am a long-time user of the stratigraphic pile system of filing. Whenever I tidy to a cabinet I can find nothing for weeks!

  6. Geologist says:

    I also doubt that the performance of the scientist can be correlated to the cleanliness of his/her office. For example, one of our lowest performers in our dept has such as messy office that he routinely gets in trouble for having a fire hazard, whereas our highest performer also has a pretty messy office, and another has a very tidy and clean office. It seems to be pretty random. Each person has methods that work for them. I have a pretty messy disaster area for my office which I blame on choosing to do work instead of ‘waste time’ by cleaning/organizing. When I take a sabbatical I sometimes find time to clean up a bit, but things quickly deteriorate again because I”m just too busy and having a tidy office isn’t a priority whereas writing grants/papers is.

  7. If I can live with it inside a filing cabinet, chances are that I didn’t really need the information on it.

  8. GMP says:

    My office is generally pretty cluttered, and I have received an occasional comment on it.
    I have found that, at least in the part of the US where I live, order and control in general are considered extremely important, and the people who I would say are a bit (or more than a bit) on the control-freak end of spectrum are actually regarded quite highly. In my experience, USA in general is more obsessed with control than many (not all) places in Europe, with my part of the country notably so.

    Anyway, my messy office does get noticed. I clean it thoroughly when each semester ends, but in between I let things accumulate how they may. Mostly, it’s a combination of me not caring enough that it be clean and just having way too much to do.

  9. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    When I tidied my desk recently (it was 4:50 pm on the Friday before a long weekend and therefore too late to start anything else), my boss asked if I was resigning. Various other people exclaimed in mock surprise “oh! There’s a desk under there!”

    My last boss once commented that I had even more piles of paper on my desk than his PhD supervisor, a Nobel Prize winner. I took that as a compliment.

    I’m sure if I ever had an office, I’d manage to fill the entire space with piles of paper.

    But I always know *exactly* where everything is!