Just messing


It is safe to say some of my colleagues would be surprised to see me recommend an article by Tim Harford (its an ONS thing) so in doing you know it must be good.

As a precursor to his upcoming new book ‘Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives’ (which I have preordered) he has written a wonderful article in the FT (uurrggh flashbacks to THAT article in the FT from Mr Harford) that proves as a perfect take down to the idea that the tidy/clean desk is somehow superior and leads to a more productive worker than the messy, chaotic desk.

Here are a couple of my favourite takeaways from the article;

Filers vs Pilers

Filers like to establish a formal organisational structure for their paper documents. Pilers, by contrast, let pieces of paper build up around their desks…when researchers from the office design company Herman Miller looked at high-performing office workers, they found that they tended to be pilers.

Least Recently Used

Computers use memory “caches”, which are small but swift to access. A critical issue is which data should be prioritised and put in the fastest cache.

Laszlo Belady proved that one of the fastest and most effective simple algorithms is to wait until the cache is full, then start ejecting the data that haven’t been used recently. This rule is called “Least Recently Used” or LRU.

A pile of documents also implements LRU: recently touched stuff on the top, everything else sinks to the bottom.

Email findability

People who use the search function find their email more quickly than those who click through carefully constructed systems of folders. The folder system feels better organised but, unless the information arrives with a predictable structure, creating folders is laborious and worse than useless.

There are also other brilliant anecdotes about calendar management and the problem of being organised in a world where categories are constantly changing and evolving.

The article reminded me of this one about Google that emerged from the ‘How Google Works’ book — Why Google Encourages Having A Messy Desk and this post from a couple of years ago that identifies a mass of famous ‘pilers’ — Why You Should have a Messy Desk.

Now I am clearly not comparing myself to some of the people mentioned in these posts but after almost 20 years working I have a good idea at this point about what works for me and the environment where I operate best. I am not a nomad able to set up shop in a coffee shop and just get stuff done, I am not a home worker able to shut out distractions. I work best in an office, in a team, in a mess that only I really understand.

…and don’t even get me started on hot-desking.