On Keeping a Neat Desk

And conquering clutter.

I am — or, hopefully, was — the Queen of Clutter. And I’ve always hated it.

The Clutter

The clutter seems to come into my home with me. Sometimes it arrives by mail or UPS or FedEx in the form of junk mail, bills, account statements, and items ordered. Other times it arrives in my car or Jeep or truck in the form of items bought at a store or given to me by a friend or family member. Other times, I have no idea where it comes from. It just seems to appear.

My procrastinating nature — and yes, I am a confessed procrastinator — causes the clutter to pile up on any horizontal surface readily available. That included my dresser, night table, kitchen table, and desk. I would go through the piles periodically, pull items out — for example, a bill or a letter — to deal with them, and then keep piling. When the piles needed to be hidden to neaten up a room, they’d be shifted to a pile elsewhere, sometimes in an empty box that would be piled with other previously empty boxes. The situation was completely intolerable and embarrassing, to say the least. And I know I’m not the only one who was bothered by it.

My desk and office seemed to be the ending point for most of the shifted clutter. In my Arizona home, I had a huge L-shaped desk where I often had several computers and monitors and printers set up. Back in those days, my primary source of income was writing books about how to use computers and I wrote several a year. The huge desk gave me plenty of space to work and accumulate clutter. The rest of the room, including the floor, was for overflow. It was so awful that after a while, I preferred working with a laptop at the kitchen table than in my own office.

Fast Forward to Today

It’s been more than three years since the last days I worked in my home office.

These days, I’m putting the finishing touches on a new home in a new place. My living space is considerably smaller — half the size, in fact — but I don’t have to share it with another person. And it has a simple floor plan with just two rooms, a bathroom, and a loft. Rather than having an office in its own room, I’ve given myself a small corner of the great room, just under 4 x 7 feet, for my office space.

I had a second desk when I lived in Arizona. I’d bought it on sale at Pottery Barn in Phoenix and set it up in the bedroom of the Phoenix condo I lived in for a short time. When I moved, I brought it and its matching file cabinet to Washington with me. It has since become my primary desk while my big, old L-shaped desk became a workbench in my shop downstairs. It fits remarkably well in the small space and looks rather nice there, too.

I became determined not to let it become the resting place for the same kind of clutter I had in Arizona, and, so far, have done very well.

Lessons from my Sister

My sister was a corporate banker with Citigroup for a bunch of years. I remember visiting her a few times at her office on Wall Street in Manhattan. The one thing that always amazed me was how neat and clean her desk was. There was never anything on it that she wasn’t working on at that moment. And, at the end of the day, it was always completely cleared off.

I was jealous of her ability to do that and, for a long time, thought it was beyond my own capabilities.

I’ve since realized that it isn’t that tough. The trick is to never let anything accumulate on the desktop. And the best way to do that is to make sure that at the end of each day, the desktop is completely cleared off.

Getting Things Done

Getting Things Done
This is the latest edition of Allen’s book. I wonder if this edition takes advantage of more computer-based organization tools.

For Christmas back in 2006 — I know this because I searched my blog posts for the first time I wrote about it and it was nearly eight and a half years ago — I got a copy of David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done. This book was written to help people conquer clutter, fight procrastination, and get more done. In other words, it was written for people like me.

I read about halfway through it. It proposed an organizational strategy that used lots of paper and folders and labels to organize the clutter into manageable tasks. I admit that I wasn’t too keen on that part of the book — in my mind, it just created more clutter by adding to the piles of paper. But it also provided a good strategy for dealing with incoming paper — the stuff of future clutter. There was a flow chart and I found it so useful that I made my own version of it in a drawing program, printed it out, and hung it on the wall over my desk in my RV.

Getting Things Done Flowchart
Here’s my version of the GTD flowchart.

Of course, this cannot completely solve my clutter problem. “Incubate” is what causes clutter on my desktop. “Reference material” is another source of clutter — that paper has to be stored somewhere. I have a file cabinet with just two drawers and will likely use one to store stationery items like letterhead and envelopes. And I know from experience that any reference material I think is worth keeping is seldom referred to in the future. In reality, it’s “deferred trash.” I can’t delegate anything, either. I don’t have employees or a partner — which is a good thing, believe me — so I have to handle everything.

So, as you can imagine, this is of limited use to me.

The Joy of Scanning

I’ve discovered that the absolute best way to keep clutter at bay is to scan the documents you think you need and store them on a backed-up computer hard disk as PDF files. And that’s what I do now.

ScanSnap Scanner
My ScanSnap scanner is portable and efficient for the volume of scanning I do.

I’ve got a little ScanSnap portable scanner that can take as many sheets of paper as I need it to. I’ve created a date-based filing system on my computer with consistent naming conventions. It works like a charm — when I take the time to scan. The key, it seems is to scan something as soon as it hits my desk and then destroy the original paper and throw it into the recycle bin. No piles.

I try to avoid having to scan anything. This is easy these days with electronic bank statements and the like. Periodically, I go online and download statements, filing them into my existing system. I have a To Do list that reminds me to download for each account every three months. I tick it off when it’s done and I’m reminded three months later to do it again. The reminder stays active until it’s done; the three-month clock starts when I tick it off.

Some of this week’s receipts in TurboScan in my iPhone before moving them to my computer.

Receipts from traveling were a huge source of clutter in the past. But I’ve recently even resolved this with a $3 app on my iPhone: TurboScan. This app uses my phone’s camera to take photos of my receipts and then stores them. When I get home, I export them as PDFs to iTunes, copy them to my hard disk, and file them away in the appropriate folders. Not a single piece of paper comes home with me. Can’t make clutter if you don’t bring it in the house. Best $3 I’ve spent in a long time.

Back to My Desk

These days, I allow only the following items to live on my desktop:

  • My computer. It’s a 27-inch iMac that’s still going strong as it comes up on its fourth birthday. I have a 24-inch monitor I can use with it and there’s a slight chance I might bring it up — especially if I start writing computer books again. For now, the computer sits alone in the back corner of my desk.
  • My keyboard and mouse. I need these. Although my desk has a drawer that could be used as keyboard drawer, I prefer to use the drawer for small office supplies like clips and a stapler and the three-hole punch that was in the desk when I unwrapped it after the move. (A parting gift from my wasband? I doubt it.)
  • A mouse pad. The desk surface is a nice wood and I don’t want to ruin it by scratching a mouse all over it.
  • Backup hard disk. I use Time Machine to back up my computer automatically.
  • A pencil cup. It’s an oversized mug with pens, pencils, scissors, ruler, and other similar items in it.
  • Coaster. For my coffee cup or other beverages. Again, I don’t want to ruin that nice desk top.
  • Charging cables for my iPad and iPhone. I tend to keep them plugged in at my desk when I’m not using them so they’re handy when I need them.
  • USB Hub. I need the ports.
  • Tissue box. I always keep tissues nearby; I’ve had sinus issues my whole life, although they’ve been very minor since moving out west from the New York metro area.

My Office
This photo of my office was shot just moments after finishing this blog post. The only extra items you see are my coffee cup (on the coaster) and iPad (on a charger). And yes, the chair is temporary; haven’t brought my office chair up yet.

Two items live on top of my file cabinet, which abuts the desk:

  • A printer. Right now, I’m using the Brother laser printer I bought cheap a bunch of years ago. It’s wicked fast and does a decent job printing. I have two other printers — a LaserJet network printer and a Color LaserJet USB printer. But how many printers does a person need? I suspect I’ll replace the Brother with the Color LaserJet when I move into my new home and get rid of the other two printers. Or maybe get rid of the LaserJet — which prints great but very slowly — and keep the Brother as a spare. I don’t print very often, but it would be nice to have the option of printing in color.
  • A portable scanner. It’s a ScanSnap and it feeds a sheet at a time. A great little scanner if you don’t need to scan often. What I like about it is that I can set it aside next to my printer when I’m not using it and, because my desk is always clean, pull it out when I need it.

There are a few other things I keep out in my office area, either on the hanging corner shelves or my oversized windowsill:

  • Router. The internet comes into the room behind my desk; the router needs to be nearby. Added bonus: I can plug my computer right into it rather than use WiFi.
  • Podcaster microphone. I occasionally appear on podcasts and video podcasts and have been thinking of starting a new podcast this summer. The microphone also works well for voice recognition, which I hope to start using more frequently. It’s easy enough to reach for the mic and put it on my desk when I need it.
  • UPS. I’ve always had my computer plugged into an uninterrupted power supply. Not only does this filter the power to make it cleaner, but it prevents sudden shutdowns in the event of a power failure. I keep it on the floor and have just about all of my equipment plugged into either the battery + surge suppression or surge suppression side.

At the end of the day, before I go to bed, my desk cleanup job is simple: just make sure the above-listed items are the only items on horizontal surfaces in my office area. Anything else must be dealt with and/or put away before I go to bed. Because nothing ever accumulates, its remarkably easy to do.

Oddly enough, when I mentioned this strategy to a friend yesterday, his response was, “How you do penalize yourself if you don’t achieve that goal?” My response was: “I always achieve it so no penalty is necessary.”

And so far, I have.

Stress-free Living

The biggest benefit of getting clutter under control and keeping a neat workspace and home is that it eliminates one source of stress.

For me, having those clutter piles around were a constant source of stress. Each pile represented a huge stack of stuff I needed to deal with that I’d already put off many times for many reasons. What made things worse is that when the clutter problem got very bad on my desk, I had difficulty finding things I needed to work on and lacked the space to spread out and work.

Getting rid of clutter is the first step to increased productivity and a stress-free lifestyle. Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself.

Overqualified and Unemployable

The irony of today’s job market.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a friend of mine. For the sake of anonymity, I’ll call her Sally.

Like me, Sally spent years writing computer how-to books, turning her expertise into easy-to-understand instructions readers could learn from. Like me, she had strong selling titles that earned her a good income. She writes about more technical topics than I wrote about: mostly web-related programming. And unlike me, she stuck to freelance work as her main source of income where I grew and then slid into a career as a helicopter pilot.

A few months ago, Sally mentioned on Twitter or Facebook that she was looking for a full-time job.

A full-time job.

I thought at the time about how I’d feel if I had to get a full-time job after more than 20 years as a freelancer and business owner. A job where I had to dress a certain way every day, work regular hours, attend pointless staff meetings, and answer to a boss with his/her own personal agenda or baggage. A job where my daily tasks would be determined by someone else, without giving me any choice in the matter. A job where the term “weekend” actually meant something.

I shudder at the thought.

Don’t get the idea that I don’t work. Or that Sally doesn’t work. Freelancers work when there’s work to do. When there isn’t, we’re usually looking for work.

But these days, the kind of work Sally and I did as freelancers is getting harder and harder to find. People don’t buy computer how-to books when they can Google the answers they seek. People don’t spend money on the educational content we produce when they can get it for free online. So publishers are letting books die without revision and, one-by-one, freelance writers like us are losing our livelihood.

The reason I’m thinking about Sally lately is because this week she posted another Twitter update to say that she was looking for a full-time job. She was using Twitter to network, to put out feelers, to help her connect to someone who might be hiring. I’m sure she’s following other avenues as well.

What resulted was a brief conversation on Twitter between me, Sally, and another freelancer our age. And that’s when I learned a tragic fact:

Sally had applied for a job at a college teaching the computer language she’d been writing about for years. In fact, the college was using her book as the textbook for the course. But they wouldn’t hire her. Why? She didn’t have a Master’s degree.

Now those folks who are working to get a Masters or already have one probably think that’s a good thing. Makes that extra two years in college really worthwhile, huh? Gives you job security, right?

But does anyone honestly think they can teach the course better than the person who wrote the textbook?

It gets worse. Sally wanted to work for a local organization that has a tendency to hire young people at low starting salaries. When she applied, she even offered to work at that low salary. And she was turned down.

I know why. Young people are inexperienced and far more likely to do what they’re told instead of tapping into experience to suggest improvements as they work. Employers don’t want smart, helpful people. They want drones — bodies to fill seats, push pencils, and get a job done without questioning what they’re told to do.

I saw if myself firsthand when I flew at the Grand Canyon in 2004; the young pilots just did what they were told while older folks like me saw places where the operation could be improved and tried to suggest them. Or, worse yet, used their experience to to make a no-fly decision when weather was an issue. Can’t have that.

So employers are turning away older, more knowledgeable, more experienced workers in favor of young, inexperienced people who might have college degrees to meet arbitrarily established requirements — even when the more experienced workers can be hired at the same cost.

What does that say about our society and values?

Stop Whining and Just Do Your F*cking Job

A Google search phrase touches a nerve.

Every once in a while, when I check the stats for my blog, I also take a look at the search engine terms and phrases that visitors used to find posts on my blog. This list is never complete — Google has begun hiding search words/phrases for privacy reasons — but it certainly is enlightening. It gives me a good idea of what people come to my blog to learn. That, in turn, gives me ideas for future topics.

During the first six hours of today, the following search phrase stands out:

i m a girl and i want become a pilot so what can i do

This is a seriously sore subject with me. You see, I don’t believe a woman should do anything different from a man when pursuing any career. The career path to becoming a pilot is the same no matter what your gender is: get the required education and training, get job experience, and move forward.

How could this possibly be any different for women than it is for men?

Women need to stop thinking of themselves as women when out in the job market. They need to stop thinking about men vs. women and simply think of job candidates vs. job candidates.

The way this search phrase was written, I get the distinct impression that the searcher was a young person — perhaps even a teen or younger. After all, she referred to herself as a “girl” instead of as a “woman” or simply “female.” That means that for some reason, she’s been taught to think of herself first as female and second as a professional. Why are parents and teachers doing this to our young people?

These days, there have been far too many whining complaints from women who are complaining about different treatment because they’re women. I’m calling bullshit on all of this. The reason you’re being treated differently is because you’re acting differently. Maybe you’re making different demands from your employer — excessive time off to deal with your children. Maybe you’re dressing differently in the workplace — short skirts, tight pants, and low-cut blouses. Maybe you’re acting differently at the office — spending too much time on the phone or gossiping about coworkers.

If you want to be treated the same as your male counterparts in the workplace, you need to stop acting like a woman and start acting like a worker.

And before you share your sob stories with me or put me on your hate list, take a lead from me. I’ve been in and achieved success in three male dominated careers — by choice — in the past 32 years:

  • Corporate auditing/finance. Straight out of college at the age of 20, I got a job as an auditor for the New York City Comptroller’s Office. I’d estimate that only about 20% of the people holding the same job were women. By the age of 22, I was a supervisor with 12 people below me, most of whom were men. Three years later, I moved into an Internal Audit position at a Fortune 100 corporation. I’d say 30% of our small audit staff were female. From there, I moved into a financial analyst position at the same company; 25% were women. I got good pay raises every year and with every promotion. (And yes, I was promoted.)
  • Technical computing/computer book authoring. In 1990, I left my full-time job to pursue a freelance career as a computer trainer and book author. This is clearly a male-dominated industry with roughly 10-20% of the people doing what I did being women. Yet I was able to get and hold a number of computer training positions, land over 80 book contracts, and write hundreds of articles about computing. I’m still doing this work.
  • Aviation/piloting. In 2000, I learned to fly and began building a career as a pilot and charter operator. How many female pilots do you see around? And helicopter pilots? I can’t imagine more than 5% of all helicopter pilots being women. It’s a seriously male-dominated field. Yet I built my company over time to the point where it generates a good amount of business, especially through summer contract work. For the past two seasons, I have been the only female helicopter pilot doing cherry drying work in Washington state.

How did I achieve such success when surrounded by men doing the same job? By simply doing my job without whining.

Ladies, take note! You want the same opportunities as men in the workplace? Stop whining and crying about how different you are. Stop being different. Focus on the work and get the job done. Do it to the best of your abilities. Be a team player.

Nobody likes a whiner. I’m sick of being lumped into a group — women — who incessantly whine about how different they’re treated when all they can do is show how different they are.

And if you think you’re a woman first and an employee second, you have absolutely no place in the workplace. Employers and clients don’t want men or women. They want people who get the job done.

November 6, 2014 PM Postscript: Here’s another blog post from 2013 that also discusses this issue, but with quotes from female pilots.

Twitter and Writing

Some thoughts on a New Yorker essay.

Twitter LogoI read an interesting essay on the New Yorker magazine’s website yesterday: “The Ongoing Story: Twitter and Writing.” It was one of those pieces that, as you read it, you realize that you and the author are sharing the same thoughts about something that you thought you were alone in thinking. As I read through the piece, I found myself wanting to highlight different passages of it — the parts of it where the author put into words what I’d been thinking or feeling for a long time.

So I figured I’d blog a little about it to store those thoughts here.

For example, the author of the piece, Thomas Beller, writes:

Most great writers could, if they wanted to, be very good at Twitter, because it is a medium of words and also of form. Its built-in limitation corresponds to the sense of rhythm and proportion that writers apply to each line.

And that’s the challenge of Twitter. Sharing a complete thought in 140 characters. I wrote about that back in October 2010 (was it really that long ago?) in my blog post titled “How Twitter Can Help You Become a More Concise Writer.” After all, anyone can write a string of tweets to tell a story. But how many people can convey that story in just 140 characters? How many people can be interesting, funny, provocative, witty, sarcastic, ironic, or insightful?

Yes, it’s true: I do tweet photos of some of my meals. (Don’t we all?) But occasionally I get more serious. Occasionally I dig deeper and come up with something witty or profound, something that other people find worthy of retweeting or, better yet, favoriting.

(Ever wonder how the word favorite became a verb? I did, too. Then I asked all-knowing Google and it pointed me to this article that explains it. It shouldn’t surprise you that Twitter is involved. But once again, I digress.)

And sometimes — just sometimes — I can paint a visual picture with those 140 characters that’s as clear as a glacial stream on a spring day.

Two more passages touch upon why and how I use Twitter:

Does a piece of writing that is never seen by anyone other than its author even exist? Does a thought need to be shared to exist? What happens to the stray thought that drifts into view, is pondered, and then drifts away? Perhaps you jot it down in a note before it vanishes, so that you can mull it over in the future. It’s like a seed that, when you return to it, may have grown into something visible. Or perhaps you put it in a tweet, making the note public. But does the fact that it is public diminish the chances that it will grow into something sturdy and lasting? Does articulating a thought in public freeze it in place somehow, making it not part of a thought process but rather a tiny little finished sculpture? Is tweeting the same as publishing?


I had always thought of Twitter as being a good place to work out ideas: a place to mull things over in public, and a way of documenting a thought to make it more likely that I would remember it. But is it like a conversation or is it “talking it out?” Is it a note to oneself that everyone can see, or is it, like iPhone photos, an attempt to offload the responsibilities of memory onto an apparatus that feels like an extension of ourselves because it is always in our hands? I sometimes wonder if I might ever be accused of stealing my own idea.

And that’s how I use Twitter: as a sort of running list of my thoughts and the things going on in my life. (That might explain why I’ve tweeted more than 44,000 times since I joined Twitter back in 2007. I think a lot and keep pretty busy.) It’s easy to whip out my phone or iPad and tweet something that’s on my mind — or to save a picture of what’s in front of me in a place where it’ll be forever (or at least a long time). It is an offloading of information so I don’t have to remember things.

Mr Beller wonders whether articulating a thought in public freezes it in place somehow. It does. It freezes it in the Twitter archive, which I can download for my account and search at any time. (How do you think it was so easy for me to come up with the tweets you see here? Imagine that archive in the hands of a paranoid and delusional stalker!) That makes it possible for me to go back in time, to see what I was thinking and doing on a specific date since my first tweet in March 2007.

I can’t think of any easier way to make life notes. Stray thoughts can be captured before they drift away, to be pondered at my leisure. And sometimes — just sometimes — they become the seeds for blog posts or conversations with friends.

Twitter was introduced as a “microblogging” service and that’s exactly how I use it. I assume other writers do the same.

But is tweeting the same as publishing? I don’t think so. It’s more like standing on a soapbox in a crowded park, making random remarks. Some folks who know you’re there and find you interesting might be there to listen. But otherwise, your words go mostly unheard. You can argue that the same can be said for publishing, but publishing seems to be a more legitimate form of communication. Or maybe that’s just old-fashioned thinking on my part.

Managing the anxiety of composition is an essential part of writing. One must master the process of shepherding the private into public. There are bound to be false starts, excursions that turn out to be dead ends. But these ephemera—notes, journals, drafts—are all composed in a kind of psychic antechamber whose main feature is a sense of aloneness. They are the literary equivalent of muttering to yourself in a state of melancholy, or of dancing in front of the mirror with music blasting when you are alone in your room. Both of these are best done when no one is home.

I’ve never found it difficult to write; there is no anxiety for me. That’s not to say that I don’t have false starts and wander down to dead ends. Or, more often than I’d like to admit, write crap.

There is an aloneness to all writing, including Twitter. And yes, tweets are like talking to yourself, but with the very real possibility that (in my case) 1600+ people are listening and may respond. No one is home here except me — I’ve been alone for a long time, even when I supposedly wasn’t.

Almost everybody who is a writer these days gets, at some point, a lecture on the necessity of being “on” Twitter and Facebook. It’s a tool of selling and career building. It is, for writers of all ages and stages, not so much required reading as required writing.

I also got this lecture from one of my publishers. I didn’t need to be sold on Twitter — I took to that like a bird takes to the sky. It was Facebook that I avoided for as long as I could. So long, in fact, that I lost a contract because I wasn’t involved enough in social media. Imagine that! An early adopter of Twitter with tens of thousands of tweets not being involved enough in social media.

Twitter gives writers the ability to put ourselves out there for the world to see. Does it help my writing career? Perhaps — to a point. It certainly helps attract blog readers and give me a steady stream of intelligent people to communicate with.

After five years and more than 44,000 tweets, I know one thing for certain: Twitter has become a part of my writing life.

Mind Boggling

One definition.

Today, while sitting at my desk in an RV parked in the middle of Central Washington State farmland, I watched a live, full-color feed from outer space on my phone of the historic docking of a privately developed commercial spacecraft to the multi-government built International Space Station. Here’s a screen capture from my phone:

Dragon Docks with ISS

I am old enough to remember when the Apollo astronauts landed on the moon. It was 1969 and I was almost 8 years old. (Aw, come on, don’t do the math.) My mother made us stay up to watch it on the family TV — a big TV console that stood on the floor and required you to get up to change the channels because there was no remote control. The picture we saw of that historic moment looked like this:

Apollo 11 First Step

Do I even need to point out that my phone has more computing power than NASA had when it launched Apollo 11?

We’ve come a long, long way.

I call that mind-boggling.