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Personal Toolkit: The wisdom of the piles — Part 2

This article appears in the issue October 2003 [Volume 12, Issue 9]

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A place for everything and everything in its place

By Steve Barth

Based on feedback to June's Personal Toolkit column, "The Wisdom of the Piles," I'm not the only knowledge worker addicted to clutter. While some comments concerned the possibility of converting messy piles to digital files, most of you seemed to agree that paper does serve a higher purpose. If you remember, researchers such as Alison Kidd argue that discrete and accreted pieces of paper are not just byproducts of sense-making, they are an integral part of the process.

At the same time, it's dangerous to take this idea too far. Obviously, random filing only works as long as you can actually find things when you need them or when they need to be found (as a bill needs to be found before its due date). At least in my case, there is certainly a point at which a messy desk becomes a barrier to clear thinking--not to mention a fire hazard.

Writing the "Piles" column inspired me to reorganize my office. While I have never claimed to be an organized person, my quest has been to devise systems whereby my messes organize themselves. That means that it should be as easy as possible for things to find their way to where they belong—in the physical or virtual plane—with as little effort from me as possible.

Progress during the first week was measured in pounds, not pages. After the initial controlled burns and hazardous waste removal, many of the piles of paper could be scanned, filed, trashed or, in some cases, dumped into bins while they sort themselves out. I cleverly got both the storage I needed and the couch I wanted by laying cushions across a single row of modular filing boxes with pull-out drawers. I also bought out an office store's supply of plastic drawer systems—the bins—eliminating dozens of square feet of open messes. I lined the window sills and bookcase tops with new plants, added more lighting, a bigger fan and found places for pictures and statues I've been collecting.

I was guided by two lines of thought. First, I discovered a field called "cognitive ergonomics" concerned, in part, with the relationship between the external environment and internal intellectual efforts. According to the principles of cognitive ergonomics, the artifacts of knowledge work need to be visible, persistent and moving in the physical extensions of our brains.

But I was also inspired by a 2002 article by design guru Don Norman called "Emotion and Design: Attractive Things Work Better" about emotional states and their relationship to the physical environment on one hand, and the type of intellectual work we're doing on the other.

"Positive affective system seems to change the cognitive parameters of problem solving to emphasize breadth-first thinking, and the examination of multiple alternatives. It also has the side effect of making people more distractible," Norman explains. "Anxiety has just the opposite effect: It biases the processing to be depth first, to focus and concentrate. Here, people are less distractible. Anxiety and fear squirt neural transmitters into the brain that narrow the thought process. In general, this is good for focus upon a specific threat or problem."

To Norman, any utilitarian design is ugly enough to trigger concentration, but my tastes aren't so discriminating. I thought about the settings I've found conducive to knowledge work, and mentally sorted them by which ones were good for creative tasks such as writing, and which were better for concentration tasks such as editing. For me, green natural settings and noisy cafes are best for inspiration; concrete benches and airplane seats are best when I need to focus.

If I had an unlimited budget I might create spaces where I could hear jazz in a bamboo grove and white noise in a rock garden. However, I can in my office create pleasing views in one direction and less austere views in the other. In addition to plants and "pretty" art, I should be able to turn my chair and face an edgier or starker deskscape.

So I reorganized my desk into a U-shape comprised of three separate tables. The table on the left is for the productive piles, with the bin system underneath. This table is meant to be messy, but it is framed with as many plants as I can fit. The center table is for productivity, with computer, phone, dictionaries, etc. Messes are inevitable here, too, but only while working and any leftovers get pushed to the left. The right-hand table is supposed to be "clean space" where I can focus on a single project. Only one mess is spread at a time here and (OK, theoretically) I clean it off every night. I'm currently using a very large, white table here, so that as I look down at my notes or reading or writing, the tabletop fills my field of view.

Admittedly, it's still a haphazard and imperfect solution. But at the very least, I'm more aware of a) my work environment, b) my state-of-mind and c) whether (a) and (b) are helping or hindering the task at hand. I'm less a victim of these factors than I was before and more deliberate in moving from one task to the next.

Steve Barth leads the workshop, "The Deep End: Integrating Personal and Organizational Values and Tools for Sustainable Transformation," with Dinesh Chandra on Oct. 13 at KMWorld & Intranets 2003 in Santa Clara, Calif., e-mail

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