Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Do You Suffer from Irritable Desk Syndrome?

One of my classmates in high school had such a messy desk that our teachers — nuns — frequently hassled her and sometimes gave her detentions for her untidiness. In retaliation she posted a sign saying, "a clean desk is the sign of a frightened mind."

While it's true that Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Mark Twain all had messy workplaces, it's also certain that clean, organized desks keep most people efficient and more productive.

I know that I'm always more prolific, more creative and happier when my desk is tidy. Which isn't to say that I'm always able to keep it that way. Some days I fear I must be suffering from Irritable Desk Syndrome.

In researching this piece I learned that NEC-Mitsubishi, a maker of computer monitors, believes the syndrome is caused by working long hours at a cluttered desk, often with poor posture. Here are some of the key findings, based on the 2,000 workers they interviewed:

  • 67 percent said they are more tied to their desks than the two years previous.
  • 40 percent said they were "infuriated by too much clutter and paper on their desks but could not be bothered to do anything about it."
  • 35 percent said they had back or neck pain because they knowingly had poor posture or an awkward position while at their desk.

I've written before about the advantages of my standing desk, but today I want to talk about the benefits of keeping a tidy workspace. Did you know that a 2010 study by Brother International found that messy desks and time spent looking for misplaced files, staplers or documents costs corporate America some $177 billion annually. Yes, the word billion is correct.

The study also estimated that employees waste an average of 76 hours a year (!) looking for misplaced files, staplers or documents.

Here's another shocking statistic. A messy desk holds 4,000 more germs per square inch than the average toilet seat.  (I think I'm going to stop eating lunch at my desk.)

I can't bear a messy desk when I'm writing so, typically, I take everything that's on my desk and simply dump it in my very large wire in-basket. (My motto? A tidy desk is less grotesque.) It's a bit of a deal with the devil because I know I'll have to sort all the papers later. But at least it allows me to get my writing done in relative peace.

Here are some other suggestions you might want to consider if you feel your desk is out of control:

  • Take everything off your desk and admire the clear, calming space. Remind yourself it could be like this every day.
  • Commit to the principle that desks are for action, not for storing.
  • Have a large inbox into which you can file (or, more realistically, throw) your papers. From my days working in newspapers, I developed the habit of using a 4-inch-deep wire basket that you can see in the far right of the photo
  • Have a filing system that's close at hand and so easy-to-use it makes you want to file. I particularly like color-coded manila folders. The vibrant colors not only make me happy, they make filing so much easier.
  • Clean your desk at the end of each day. If you're too tired, do it first thing the next morning. If you do it daily, it shouldn't take you longer than five minutes.
  • Develop the habit of dusting or wiping down your desk with a cleaning solution (perhaps water, dish soap and vinegar) once a week.

Don't suffer from Irritable Desk Syndrome! Particularly not when it can hurt your writing productivity. In fact, I've just realized that cleaning my desk is rather similar to writing:

If I turn it into a habit I don't have to make a decision about whether to do it. I'll just do it. (This is called automaticity.)

If I do it for five minutes a day I won't be daunted by the task and the benefits will slowly accumulate.

If I don't wait to be inspired, and just get down to doing the work, then I'll be able to finish it faster.

A clean desk is not the sign of a frightened mind. It's the sign of someone who has embraced the value of tidying.


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Monday November 21st 2016, 3:22 AM
Comment by: Sue B.
Is there something wrong in that last paragraph? I found it confusing. Maybe it's just me.
Monday November 21st 2016, 4:15 AM
Comment by: Bodil S. (Lund Sweden)
I have the same feeling as Sue B
Monday November 21st 2016, 5:47 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, readers! Yes, that last graf is wrong-headed. It should read: "A clean desk is not the sign of a frightened mind. It's the sign of someone who has embraced the value of tidying."

So sorry for the error!
Thursday November 24th 2016, 7:57 AM
Comment by: The Dormouse Awakes (Austin, TX)
You could blame the flawed final paragraph on your stark and barren desk.
Monday November 28th 2016, 9:56 AM
Comment by: Kristin E.
The article has been updated with the author's suggested revision. Thank you for your input, VT Readers!

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