After learning via Twitter that it’s National Clean Off Your Desk Day and finding out through some quick research that this annual event takes place every year on the second Monday in January, I started thinking about a good exercise for home-office workers: List What’s on Your Desk.
But the phrase “clean off your desk” also reminded me of a company I worked at ten years ago that had a so-called “clean desk policy,” meaning every employee was expected to leave a pristine work surface in his or her wake at the end of the day. Although I chafed at the implied paternalism of allowing Corporate to dictate my office organization habits, I have to admit it was a worthwhile standard to try to uphold. Leaving a bare desk surface is really just a visual representation for having reached the end of your To Do list by the end of the day. If your goal is to leave your desk clean, that suggests that the expectation is that you will get to everything you absolutely must do before the day ends. Or you won’t leave the office until you’ve gotten to that point, regardless of what time it might be. Walking through the halls at the end of the day at that company and seeing all those shiny green desktops gleaming in the nighttime fluorescent light did convey a sense of efficiency; you felt that you were truly walking through a business in which people spent their days accomplishing things and then went home with a clean conscience along with a clean desk.
Needless to say, employees found ways around this policy when necessary. There are desk drawers to place unfinished work in, of course, and there is also the ever-convenient desk chair, which ensures – unlike a drawer – that you will see the unfinished pile as soon as you arrive the next morning. Moreover, the idea of paperwork representing unfinished work is somewhat anachronistic, as electronic files make for a paper-light, if never truly paperless, office. These days you could have a clean desktop but a full email in-box, and leave a neat office at the end of the day without having accomplished much of anything at all.
Which brings me to the home office in which I am sitting right now. Although I do generally work almost paper-free, relying on electronic files for documentation, websites for research and information, and email for all correspondence, you wouldn’t know it to look at my desk. Here’s what’s on it right now:
* A stack of stories, handwritten in pencil on blue-lined primary-book pages, from my daughter Holly’s second grade class. The teacher needed a parent volunteer to type the stories up, and I offered to do so. At this point I’ve finished two and a half stories out of twenty, so I still have some work to do.
* A book called Running the Spiritual Path: A runner’s guide to breathing, meditating, and exploring the prayerful dimension of the sport by Roger D. Joslin. This book was recommended to me by Episcopal priest Tim Schenck of St. John the Evangelist Church in Hingham when I mentioned to him that I had been asked to give a church sermon on the spiritual aspects of running at the end of this month. I started the book yesterday and haven’t yet started drafting the sermon, but seeing the book on my desk reminds me that I’d better get going on it.
* A stack of odds and ends including empty picture frames, a box of child-protector drawer locks and a can opener. These are items I found yesterday while cleaning out the junk drawer in the kitchen; my goal is to take them up to our third floor attic and put them in a box destined for the swap shed at the town transfer station, which means of course that I’m bringing them up two flights of stairs only to eventually bring them back down and put them in the car, but it will get them out of sight for the time being.
* A plate with bagel crumbs. No further explanation needed, I imagine.
* A plush red cube-shaped beanbag about 2” square, one from a set of three that my 11-year-old son Tim is using to learn to juggle.
* A papier-mache dragon painted bright pink, purple, orange and green that Tim made in school last year while studying the Chinese New Year.
* A birthday card from Holly with the following penciled inscription: “Wat are you wishing for, wat is your grant. It’s the pretest thing in all the land. I wish I could help with all the hard work…and aspeshally the wish which I’d make come true!” Technicolored magic marker hearts and rainbows encircle the text.
* A pencil mug from my 20th high school reunion.
* A ceramic box holding paper clips and rubber bands that Holly made on her last trip to the pottery painting studio.
So as you can see, I’m a long way from a clean-desk policy here in my home office, but it could be worse. The artifacts and card are cheerful to glimpse as I work; the running book reminds me to get started on the sermon; the second graders’ stories urge me to get that project done as promised. The juggling cube makes me wonder whether Tim will get good at juggling. It’s an inspiring mix of distractions, even though Corporate at my former company would surely disapprove.
As for other home office workers: What’s on your desk right now, and what does it say about your life?