There’s proof: Sometimes a messy desk is more efficient

Picture this: you have few pieces of paper in your hand. Bills that need to be paid, referral letters that need to be followed up, some documents you think you’ll refer to for an upcoming project. What do you do with them?

Do you:

  1. Plonk them onto your desk, or
  2. File them neatly away into the exact spot where they belong. (Of course you already have a spot for unpaid bills, and a folder for items which you need to follow up on. But these reference documents? You create a new folder for those right away.)

In other words: are you a “piler”, or a “filer”?

If, like me, your honest answer is that you’re a piler, then chances are that someone at some point in your life someone has tried to convert you to being a filer. After all, doesn’t everyone know that you should have a place for everything, and put everything in its place?

(I can still remember the smug look on a co-worker’s face when she said to me “Christina! I can’t believe you don’t have folders in your email inbox! How do you find anything!?”)

But guess what? (Here’s the part that will make you feel smug!) The research says that “pilers” are actually better at finding what they need, when they need it.

How can that be? There’s a few reasons:

  • When you put papers on your desk, they are in easy reach. Even if it takes you a few seconds to rifle through your pile of papers, it actually takes filers longer to sort through their filing systems.
  • Papers piled on your desk are “self-sorting”, because the ones you use the most often will usually be on top of the pile.
  • Many bits of paper only need to be used once, so filing them away is a waste of time (and space).
  • “Filers” are prone to premature filing: they create new folders before they have developed an understanding of the most useful label to file things under.

Of course, piling things on your desk for decades without throwing or filing them away isn’t necessarily going to help you find things! The most efficient way of all is to sort through your desk pile once every so often, throwing away anything that has become rubbish and filing away anything you might need for reference in future.

And what about that email inbox my co-worker was so smug about?

Well, researchers at IBM have found that carefully filing emails away into folders is a big waste of time. It turns out that people who simply search for a few key words in their inbox are able to retrieve old emails more quickly than those who use filing systems.

So next time you have several papers in hand?

Plonk them on your desk.


What's your procrastination trigger?
Take the quiz to find out!

Colourful paper planes littered across a desk.

2 Replies to “There’s proof: Sometimes a messy desk is more efficient”

  1. I put loose papers that I’m using on a clipboard which keeps them easy to access but also easy to clean up in a drawer at the end of the day. Anyone who saw those papers would think “Wow, those must be very official. She’s so organized!” I also have a flip file for frequently referenced pages. Desktop flip files are ugly, but life changing.

    DURABLE Desktop Reference System

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.