Monthly Archives: March 2014

A clear desk does not mean an empty mind.


My research will involve exploring participants’ interpretations of certain experiences and situations, and as a result I’ll be thinking a lot about the attribution of ‘meaning’ over the next few years. I’ll be exploring an aspect of participants’ experience that is on the surface quite practical, but unpicking their descriptions of it to gain a better understanding of the meanings that might be hidden in layers beneath the obvious.

Symbols are often designed to universalize communication and transcend verbal language, contributing to shared meanings – think of the wheelchair sign on parking spots or toilet doors, for example. On the other hand, sometimes meaning is influenced by culture and can vary across groups of people. Why, for example, do politicians and media personalities in some countries (anyone feel like making a guess?) insist on pointing at an apparent ‘someone’ in the audience? I presume they’re pretending that there’s a particularly prized person in their sights (“Hey, favoured person! Fancy seeing you here! Must do coffee some time!”). The reality is that in a crowd, about twenty people will all think “He’s pointing at me. Hey, look everyone, he’s pointing at me”…the impact of which is surely reduced by the fact that the nineteen people around you, who are the only ones who would be able to see you and be impressed by your special status, all think he’s pointing at them. But I’m wandering off-topic…my point is (boom boom) that the extension of a finger towards another individual could also be considered extremely rude and aggressive in other cultural or situational contexts.

Bringing this discussion closer to home and into a more personally reflective vein, I’ve been thinking recently about the meaning of place and space, and particularly about their meaning in terms of work, study, fun, and a balanced life.

Several years ago, I worked with a woman we will call Jenny. Jenny was a kind, friendly person, who was particularly good at smoothing troubled waters – an important skill, as we were working in a bureaucratic environment frequently characterised by frustrations, interpersonal and interagency tensions. Our workplace was the sort of open-plan office you see on TV shows: cubicles giving a false perception of privacy, each decorated as a home-away-from-home by the busy corporate types who, in all likelihood, probably did spend more time there than at home. Among all the bright, high-stress, glittering twitter (that’s small-t twitter…it was in the days before Twitter was capitalised) Jenny’s workstation was one of those places that speaks to my inner archaeologist: piles of paper, stacked on other piles of paper, stacked on books; family photos; stress balls and coffee cups with conference logos; and sticky notes pinned on every otherwise-naked surface.

Jenny swore that in this woman-cave, she knew the location of every single item and piece of paper. Unfortunately, my experience didn’t bear this out, as proven on many occasions of flustered ‘it’s in this pile, I think…no, I know it was, but maybe it’s over here…’ I loved working with Jenny and she had many valuable strengths, but when it came to her organisational skills I think she was delusional.

I, on the other hand, consider that my workspace gives a direct message about my state of mind. If it’s looking chaotic, I am probably feeling overwhelmed and out of control. If things are in neat piles, with a sticky label on top (‘work’, ‘study’, ‘read’, ‘file’, ‘shred’, etc) I am reasonably on top of things. Note the virtuous tone with which I make this observation. I am not delusional at all.

Toward the end of last year, I decided to try and make my main workspace, which was at that time the only table in our small apartment, into a ‘paperless office’. (Guess what my motivation was? It had to do with food…) Step one was to move all the papers to a different place – piled in the stacks mentioned above, naturally – and then start working in a clean space, retrieving only what I needed and discarding or saving it electronically as I went. I was amazed at the emotional impact of sitting down to my normal workspace with no papers around it. Even looking at it felt odd. Rather than feeling free, I felt curiously unanchored – which is not quite the same thing – and it didn’t take long at all before the papers were starting to creep back to the table.

Why was this? Well, being brutally honest with myself, I think the logic went like this: chaotic workspace = chaotic mind, tidy workspace = tidy mind, and therefore clear workspace = empty mind. So, logically, there was a link between visible signs of work and actual mental activity. This gave me a new insight into the meaning I was giving to my physical environment, and also makes me wonder whether Jenny wasn’t so much chaotic, as fearful of not being busy, or perhaps not being seen to be busy. Maybe she thought (however deeply buried in her workspace/mind) that her personal value as an employee was somehow intrinsically linked with the visible signs of activity. Maybe Jenny and I actually have a lot in common.

I am trying to re-wire my own perceptions by, firstly, challenging my personal notion of the meaning of a clear space. A clear desk does NOT mean an empty mind. It means (because I choose it to mean) a clear desk, and only that. The housekeeping of my mind is a necessary but separate activity, and the use of electronic files, folders and to-do lists is simply a tool to assist in that, with a lovely capacity to be shut down and invisible at the end of the working day. And that, in turn, creates space for a delicious meal. Symbolically, and literally.