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December 15, 2003

I have two weeks left to clean my desk. This was one of my New Year’s Resolutions last year, which I unfortunately made public in this column. The pressure’s on.

I’d resolved to do other things, too. In the way of such resolutions, some were ignored or forgotten; others were attended to but really had nothing to do with resolve. Some things happen naturally.

The trick, then, is to make resolutions about things you think will take care of themselves.

As self-improvement, this is a bit of a dodge. You may remember as a kid when you or your friends had to give up something for Lent, and a small battle ensued about the nature of the sacrifice.

“Mom, I’m gonna give up homework for Lent.”

“It has to be food, dear.”

“Okay. Spinach and peas.”

It’s the kind of optimization that makes perfect sense to a kid.

I’ve thought about the problem of organizing my desk. Options for optimization of the process are few, because the fundamental spirit is one of maintenance. Vigiliance.

Nevertheless, a few traits prevail for successful organization, and chief among them is retrievability.

The key to that system may be buried in your head, or it may be manifested in the layout, as with tabbed files arranged alphabetically, numerically, or chronologically.

Almost everyone’s mental organization has a time component. We have a natural sense of chronology — life and memory as a timeline.

My desk has both a vertical and a horizontal axis for time: deeper is older, and farther to the left is older. The unknown thing touching the desktop in the far left corner has entered the province of archaeology.

In other words, it takes an expedition to recover it. Usually (I hope), these things have no other place because they’re under consideration, or were. Many other things have places — minutes, budgets, audits, reports, invoices, check stubs, agreements.

Papers under consideration are mostly about possible books, possible electronic services, possible projects. One secret to a neat desk is to make a decision about such pieces of paper immediately, but I’m constitutionally unable to relinquish hope that a particular good book or service might be something we’d like to have.

It seems worthy of reconsideration. The entire world demands reconsideration, constantly. One must stop sometime, even if it’s just at the end of the day.

I like the method of organizing stuff for her projects that Twyla Tharp explained in her book “The creative habit.” She uses storage boxes, marks them with a project name, and everything that she collects or uses for that project — newspaper articles, books, videotapes, photographs, notes, items of any kind that relate to it — goes into the box.
This doesn’t translate well to every situation, of course, but in fact it is how archives are often structured. A collection, often kept in the same kind of box, is usually named after the owner or donor. This provenance is preserved, because there is information in the provenance itself for future researchers to assess.
Nowadays, computers and electronic databases change our expectations as well as our methods. There’s an expectation that “it” is all in one place, and yet it’s not.
A student was looking in our library catalog for Billy Sunday, specifically for an article about Billy Sunday, and more specifically one from the local paper in 1906. Each level of detail dictates a different path. The question matters.
So, my question now is: Do I really want a clean desk?


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