The Surprising Benefits of Cleaning My Work Desk
“Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men.” — Prov 22:29
In the early days of my 16-year-plus-old career, I found myself working in the middle of two technically astute but aesthetically divergent bosses. On the one extreme was the managing director and at the other was the finance director, my direct line manager. I got my dexterity with numbers and some tricks of the trade from him.
I was more exposed to the working style of my line manager, who I will call Mr. Coolhead. But I also got to work on some strategic projects with the managing director, for which I was summoned to his office every now and again. The managing director loved his good old low cut riggers boots. I will call him Mr Boots. The working styles of Mr. Coolhead and Mr. Boots put me in my first professional dilemma as an aspiring finance executive.
Mr. Coolhead was the second finance director I was working with at that point in my career and in that company. I admired him more than his predecessor. I wanted to emulate him. Mr. Coolhead was brilliant, he knew his numbers and had an excellent understanding of the business. Still about 13 years later, I can not recall any incidence in which he lost his cool in the three or four years that I worked with him. We formed a relationship that went beyond the office. We became friends — had drinks after work, social evenings at his house where we played pool, and in one of the famous clubs in Freetown, we played tennis. Please allow me to skip the details of those games. It was all about sportsmanship, and I showed good spirit. He was a family man. For the birth of my first daughter, he authorised extra expense for me to be with my wife in Nigeria. However, I did not get there in time. I remember how bad Mr. Coolhead felt that I missed the big moment.
Mr. Coolhead taught me a lot and helped me to build the foundation for my career in telecoms finance. However, there is one trait I got from him that I had to try hard to wean myself off. In fairness to him, most finance professionals wear this trait on their chest like a badge of honour. Here is my dilemma.
Mr. Coolhead, to put it mildly, kept an untidy desk. His table was always littered with paper, leaving not even an inch of a trace of the wood underneath. He barely had space for his calculator, let alone his laptop. His in and out trays were always full to overflowing. His was the most disorganised table I had seen up to that point in my career. But amid all the “paperic chaos” (yep! I just made that up) he was proud to tell you that he could locate any piece of paper that anyone would request. Honestly, it was admirable at the time. I used to wonder, “how the heck does he do that?” Over time, I acquired the “skill”. What was I supposed to do? He was the boss I admired. But I have to admit that each time I walked into Mr. Boots’ office, I was awestruck.
Mr. Boots’ was a beautiful sight to behold. Clean as a whistle. “Does he do any work at all?” I used to think to myself. I could not reconcile the heap on my desk and that on Mr. Coolhead’s desk to the clean, paperless and shiny top of Mr Boots’ desk. He organised his office well. The serenity of that office was surreal when juxtaposed against mine. I summed up the courage to ask Mr Boots the question that had been burning in my mind for almost a year, if not more. His answer was so simple; it was unreal. “Deal with it or get rid of it, Dunstan. If a document is urgent, I will deal with it and pass it on. If it is not important, urgent or not needed, I will trash it or put it away in a proper file in my filing cabinets.” Really? That’s it? He cannot be serious is what I said to myself. It is easy for him to do because he is the managing director. He does not get as much paperwork as we do in finance, is how I rationalised it. I should have learnt my lesson when someone used that clutter to perpetrate a fraud right under my nose. The person took advantage of the fact that I will not notice that a bank slip for US$ 40,000 was missing from the mountain of paper on my desk. The bank slip which someone had given to me, I realised months later, was fake with no corresponding deposit in the bank. I was exonerated because Mr. Coolhead and Mr. Boots trusted me enough to vouch for me during the investigation. Thank God. That should have given me a wake-up call from the cluttered desk syndrome.
Six years later, in 2014, I got to work with a CEO who kept his desk exactly like Mr. Boots. Ironically, the CFO’s desk was cluttered but nothing close to Mr. Coolhead’s. Then it hit me. I can try the clean desk practice. I struggled in the beginning. I would misplace papers in my new organised setting. Filing space was a problem because I was not dealing with documents on time. Today, I can not imagine how I managed to put myself through all that torture of a messy desk for all those years. I swear by “clean desk policy” now. I pass this lesson to my team and implement a formal clean desk policy where there is none. I do so because I have experienced the productive value of keeping a working desk as clean as that of Mr. Boots. Brian Tracy articulated the benefits of a clean working space best in chapter 9 of his book — Eat That Frog.
“Set up your work area so that it is comfortable, attractive, and conducive to working for long periods.” — Brian Tracy
Keeping a clean desk reminds me of the discipline of making your bed that Admiral H McRaven mentioned as part of the ten lessons for changing the world that he outlined in his 2014 commencement speech at the University of Texas. He says making your bed gives you a sense of pride of completing the first task of the day which will motivate you to get other tasks done.
“Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that the little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never be able to do the big things right. And if by chance you’ve had a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made, that you made. A made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.” — Admiral H McRaven
That is the same feeling I get every morning when I walk into my office facing a clean desk without a single piece of paper on it. It gives a feeling of a fresh start; it helps give a clear mind and uncluttered thoughts to start each day. My first task of the day is to say a prayer; then I will go through my to-do list that I would have prepared the night before. If not, I will prepare one right away. Then, like a handyman on his workbench, I will lay out all that I need for the first task on my to-do list. Pen, calculator and printed materials that I need to review/approve. I religiously do not leave anything unattended on my desk. I send out completed documents to the relevant people, documents for a later review will go into my filing cabinet or drawer, and unwanted papers are shredded. Mr Boots was right. It works.
“The cleaner and neater you organise your work area before you begin, the easier it will be for you to get started and keep going.” — Brian Tracy
A clean desk helps me to:
1) Overcome involuntary procrastination. I can focus on what I am doing and not get distracted by unnecessary things around me.
2) Feel motivated to start my day because I am carrying over the sense of accomplishment from the previous day. It can be depressing to be greeted by a messy desk first thing in the morning.
3) Organise my thoughts and tools to focus on one task at a time.
If you want to be more effective, stress-free and productive, follow this advice by Brian Tracy.
1) Take a good look at your desk or office, both at home and at work. Ask yourself, “What kind of person works in an environment like this? The cleaner and neater your work environment, the more positive, productive, and confident you will feel.
2) Resolve today to clean up your desk and office completely so that you feel effective, efficient, and ready to get going each time you sit down to work.
This advice is like the seventh habit of Highly Effective People — Sharpen your saw. Be sure to prepare well before you start your day. Do not start with a messy, disorganised or cluttered desk. Tidy up each day before you leave your workspace.
According to research, we spend an average of one-third of our lives at work. For Americans, this is about 90,000 hours. You, therefore, owe it to yourself to make your office a place that you enjoy spending your time. Having a clean desk is one step in that direction.
“The most productive people take time to create a work area where they enjoy spending time.”
Choose a clean desk.
PS: Please leave a comment below if you have had a similar transformation from a cluttered desk to a clear desk. Also, if you are working with a cluttered desk let us know if you are willing to give a clean desk a try. Final, share your experiences of working with a clean desk if this is your working style.