Order in chaos

My desk is a mess.

My computer takes the centre position. That’s about the only place with some semblance of serenity. Surrounding this electronic piece of equipment, chaos reigns. Files are stacked and shoved to one corner. My bag and other personal belongings are packed to the other corner. I’ve got a C# reference book practically acting as my permanent armrest for my left hand. I don’t even have space to put my other three reference books, and I have to put those on another desk. And the pieces of paper scattered all over, covering every centimetre square of space on my desk.

And I can’t work without this mess. I need this chaos around me to function. That pile of paper there? That’s my programming reference pile. This pile here? My immediate-tasks pile. The one beside it? Oh, the project-just-over-but-keep-in-my-face-for-emergency pile, which slowly joins its comrades in the so-long-ago-I-forgot pile. Then there’s the scribbles, where I scribble down stuff like thoughts, notes, user interface prototype drawings and shorthand of user queries.

The apparent haphazardness of my desk actually has an order to it. Like handing a value smaller than 1 to the “minus x square” function, the chaotic disarray goes one way and then another. And as you continue, you find everything slowly settles into order.

The function eventually goes to zero. And my desk arrangement finally makes sense.

I’ve peeked at my colleagues’ desks. Their files and papers are all neatly stacked into rectangular blocks, with nary a sheet out of place. I can also see large parts of their desks’ surface. My mind is capable of pulling seemingly disparate ideas together. The natural way for my work desk to manifest is by being a mess.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wondered if a high level manager walks by my desk and judges me to be anything less than competent, based on the condition of my desk. I, am afflicted with NADD. This is who I am. I will be listening to music, while I’m feverishly jamming the keyboard, wishing the code will appear as fast on screen as it is in my mind, and tapping my feet in tune to the rhythms. Then I’ll be writing some comments because that piece of code will probably confound anyone else who reads it, and midway through the commenting, I’d think of some funny expression and I’ll check my English on Merriam-Webster. And oh yeah, I need to check that SQL expression to do string manipulation, and then Google it. Then the phone will ring, and I’ll drop my earphones, and I’ll wait a while to clear my throat and then pick it up, to attend to the needs of some user. I’ll then clasp the phone between my right ear and shoulder (because research shows the right ear is connected to the left side of the brain, which is better at deciphering voices than music), while opening up a document to confirm some details. And after I finish answering the user’s query, I’ll think to myself, “what the heck was I doing before this?“. Ok, what was I talking about? Oh right, so I find it unbelievable that anyone can have a neat desk, and so I decided to ignore the high level manager and just do what I do to produce results.

I usually have half a dozen applications open on my computer desktop at any one time. I thought this to be bad. Then I saw one of my colleagues have so many windows open (yeah we’re in the Windows camp. Hey we telnet to do some *nix work too), that the taskbar had to double up in width (I’m starting to do that too these days…) because there are too many taskbar icons.

I also know of some of my users who have ten Excel spreadsheets open. Or two of the same application open because they think it’ll work faster. Or they’ll give the impression of being multitasking. STOP IT! Multitasking is a fallacy! David Allen uses the term “rapid refocusing”. Some people can bring chaos into order. Some people can’t. If you need to have that many windows opened to gather information, and you’re a user, your IT department is slacking off. Go pester them.

If you are someone who thrives on being in the eye of a tornado, who finds peace in chaos and who can bring peace from chaos, I salute you. Welcome to the real world.

  1. Improvement reports | Polymath programmer

    […] There’ll be phone calls and emails to and fro, to confirm this, to help set up that, to ask why that number is supposed to be that number. I’ll probably be working on another project while smiling on the phone and scribbling notes on my already messy desk. […]

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