Sunday, May 07, 2006

In Praise of Clutter


People spread paper over their desks not because they are too lazy to file it, but because it is a physical representation of what is going on in their heads.
This is a great quote from an article in the Economist that I link to below. This is so true and something I've been dealing with over the last few days. Just a few hours ago, as a matter of fact, I moved a table from my living room into my bedroom/office because I continued to get frustrated at not having enough area to spread out all the papers and books I'm studying for my finals.

I kept trying to clear things off my desk, use the floor, trying to work on the computer, etc., all to no avail. As soon as I added a few additional areas to spread out papers, viola! My productivity studying has shot up severalfold!

Should I be surprised? Not according to this article by the Economist:



[Paper] can be annotated more easily than text on a screen can; those marks can be seen more easily by several people than can digits on a screen; and it can be moved around, thus conveying more information.

The 25 workers (16 economists, seven administrative workers and two research assistants) whom Mr Harper and Ms Sellen studied spent 97% of their time working on documents of some sort; of that, 86% of the time was spent working on paper. They liked paper because they could spread it around; because they could annotate colleagues' work without interfering with the text, as they would if they annotated electronically; and because paper interfered less with communication during a meeting than screens would.

In order to observe the differential impact of paper and computers on how people work, Mr Harper and Ms Sellen set up an experiment with ten people, five of them using paper and pens, five of them using screens only. Their task was to summarise a number of reports.

The people working with paper spread out all the reports on a desk, flicked through them, annotated them, moving easily from one to the other. The people working on computers struggled to do something similar, creating a number of windows on their screen. They found navigation—scrolling, clicking and dragging—slow and cumbersome, and several of them got quite cross. One started shouting at his computer.

The relationship between workers and their clutter is similar. People spread stuff over their desks not because they are too lazy to file it, but because the paper serves as a physical representation of what is going on in their heads—“a temporary holding pattern for ideas and inputs which they cannot yet categorise or even decide how they might use”, as Ms Kidd puts it. The clutter cannot be filed because it has not been categorised. By the time the worker's ideas have taken form, and the clutter could be categorised, it has served its purpose and can therefore be binned. Filing it is a waste of time.

Computers are fine, in their place; but their proper place is at the edge of a healthy distribution of clutter.

Simply fascinating!

I can say, I've been a victim of trying too hard to go paperless. I was better able to do when at my last job as a project manager, but even then, I probably went overboard. Here at school, I really got pinched last semester when my computer crashed with all my notes on it (in a proprietary format) during final exams. I had back-ups, but no access to a computer with the software I needed to read them. For some reason, I've been much more paper-centric this semester...

I have always been a gadget-lover and still hope to one day find the perfect balance towards being as paperless as possible. However, I am also increasingly being reminded of how great paper and pencils can be. No crashing, power failures, batteries to run out, or software to install. The operating system to use them is located somewhere between my ears and the tools are nearly ubiquitous and so inexpensive as to be practically cost-free.

Paper has no restrictions on formatting and comes in sizes smaller than the smallest of palm pilots and larger than the 30-inch monitors I drool over in the Apple store.

While I still love computers and just about any kind of digital technology, I am also once again learning to love the simple tools I used as a child.

Additional Links:

See my previous posts on paper, pencils, paperwork, and the perfect notebook.

One final thought before I get back to my clutter of papers to study: Is moving a second desk into my room the analog equivalent of adding a second monitor to your computer?

Hattip to Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science for getting me thinking in this direction.

1 comment:

Killer Content said...

Your blog improved my self estimate 100%: ) Really. I always felt embarassed because of the situation occuring on my desk. My parents were tired of scolding and grumbling at me as it had no effect in bringing my work place in a better condition. I will give my parents to read this article so that they undertsand that it is just in my nature to have things all around me. The worst thing for is that I am used to a mess and I know where every piece of paper is, I find the necessary piece quite fast. But I can not find anything when I have a sample order on my desk. Because I am not used to it !!!! no, no. Well, I will apply the techniques described in the article and see how they work. thanks again.