Does Your Desk Tell Secrets About You?

OK- I had a lot of fun with last week’s post!  Thanks for the comments and emails (And phone calls).  This whole desktop thing seems to have struck a nerve with a few of you….

I want you to try a little experiment. Pick five people at random in your company – preferably ones you do not know well. Go by their desks and observe their desktop stuff. What you can deduce about them from the objects on the desktop? Did you form an opinion about what is important to them or how well they might be doing their jobs? Now, go back to your cubicle or office and look at your own desk.

Sam Gosling, a psychology professor at THE UNIVERSITY – known to outsiders as The University of Texas at Austin – recently authored a book, Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You that purports to study how people’s belongings exhibit their personalities. When it comes to the most essential components of our personality, he believes that the things we display and the way we arrange them says quite a bit about who we really are.

Here are a few of his observations, quoted from his 2008 interview with National Public Radio’s Neal Conan and some reader comments from Amazon:

  • Question: do the desk owner’s family photos face him or the visitor? Hmm.
  • Is the desk that is cluttered with baseball stuff a sign of a collector or a hoarder? (depends on the organization)
  • Introverts place fewer personal items on their desks than extroverts.
  • People with candy for visitors are inviting and outgoing.
  • Do not judge someone based on one characteristic of his or her stuff.


Others have observed that women’s offices contain more symbols of relationships, while men tend to have sports items or certificates acknowledging personal achievements. Ahh, this pop psychology stuff gives me a headache. However, I know from personal experience that some people reach conclusions about your work habits from observing the organization of your desk. Here’s a scenario I observed many years ago, while working at a company primarily involved in building hardware:

I was walking through cube-land with an older senior manager. The area was populated with hardware engineers – primarily EEs and software engineers. The manager commented in passing, “I can always tell the desks of the software engineers, there is stuff everywhere” (this was not offered as a compliment.) Looking around, you could see some desks held only a calculator, neatly stacked papers and a pencil cup. While on other desks, there were sticky notes all over CRTs (remember CRTs?), cartoons stuck with pushpins into a cork board and stress squeeze balls in neon colors.

So, my conclusion: If you work in a large company, where people who do not know you may pass your workspace, tidy up a bit. Put papers into folders and folders into file drawers. Use electronic storage and filing whenever possible. Arrange personal items and mementos outside of the central working area. And, above all if you are a PM or manager, have a candy bowl and offer good stuff to visitors. I personally love dark chocolate!

Organization and Productivity 101 – Desk Control for Managers


Are you an organized person? Do you feel “in-control” of the information overload and amount of data that you have to deal with?  At one time, I believed – naively – that the computer, smart phone, PDA and other assorted electronic assistants would help everyone be more productive and organized!  I think I was 21, a new software engineer, and really believed that technology would allow all of us to have cleaner desktops and smoothly organized flow of work tasks, synchronized calendars and completed action items. Wrong! I still see project manager’s desks (including mine) piled high with papers and other detritus (a better and more precise word than debris).  As an example, here is a good picture of my desk:

Cartoon by Dave Walker.

Did you know that the second Monday of January is National Clean off your Desk Day? Ian McKenzie suggests, tongue-in-cheek, that if you only need one day per year to clean your desk, your organizing system must be good.

Dana Knight, of “The Indianapolis Star” reports that, “Employees fall into a variety of categories when it comes to workplace organization, the study says. About half of American workers are professional but relaxed, meaning their desks are organized but have a couple of small, neatly stacked files; 31% work among organized chaos; 13% are the creative type, or very messy; and 7% are prim and proper, meaning the only thing on their desks is a paperclip.”

OK- so you are wondering why am I on this organized kick?  I attended a Microsoft partner conference last fall and met an author who talked about this very subject.  And of course like most of us I got the book and never read it.  Well, I finally did read it and I would like to tell you about some organizational advice that may help you get control of your desktop.

When I was at the conference I heard author David Allen speak about his way to get “stress-free productivity,” which is captured in his popular book, Getting Things Done. His GTD system suggests that you will improve your organization and productivity by moving to-do lists out of your mind and onto paper, which is then organized into contexts, such as “phone calls” or “errands” and then sorted into folders for each day of the month. (I also believe in using a “to stop” list- see the guest post by my good friend Herb).
Anyway, on his website, Allen describes GTD as “Sophisticated without being confining, the subtle effectiveness of GTD lies in its radically common sense notion that with a complete and current inventory of all your commitments, organized and reviewed in a systematic way, you can focus clearly, view your world from optimal angles and make trusted choices about what to do (and not do) at any moment.” He recommends that you organize your workspace to:

  • Capture anything and everything that has your attention
  • Define actionable things discretely into outcomes and concrete next steps
  • Organize reminders and information in the most streamlined way, in appropriate categories, based on how and when you need to access them
  • Keep current and “on your game” with appropriately frequent reviews of the six horizons of your commitments (purpose, vision, goals, areas of focus, projects, and actions)

Also checkout this summary of GTD from LifeDev – GTD Cheatsheet. The workflow diagram pretty well sums it up. My advice is to learn more about GTD and then try it. You may be surprised.

I have found this subject very intriguing and so next week I will talk about what you can learn about a person just by looking at how they organize their desk (So if you are one of my associates – be sure to clean up your desk!)

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