Randy Pausch on Keeping a Clear Desk

Recorded on July 4th, 2016

Yesterday, I was going through what I call a “box of shame”. It’s one of those boxes I end up with after I realize I have too much unprocessed crap on my desk and I sweep it all into a big box so I can keep working, knowing that I’ll deal with it later — sometimes much later. That’s no way to live, but it’s still one notch better than having your work held up by a bunch of stuff that’s physically in the way.

Among all the random papers and wires and half-filled Field Notes notebooks, I saw a Post-It note where I had scribbled, “Randy Pausch crucial desk clear”. No date on it, and no other context, but I knew that it was something that I wrote down to get out of my head while I was working on something else one day. And I knew it was a phrase I had heard during one of the many times I listened to the audio version of Randy Pausch’s “last lecture” at U.Va.

From the transcript of the “Time Management” (PDF) section of his lecture, here’s the part that my Post-It note referred to. And yes, it’s funny that I would be reminded of the wisdom of an orderly desk while sorting through a pile of desk clutter:

Paperwork. The first thing that you need to know is that having cluttered paperwork leads to thrashing. You end up with all these things on your desk, and you can’t find anything, and the moment you turn to your desk your desk is saying to you: “I own you! I have more things than you can do! And they are many colors and laid out!” So what I find is that it’s really crucial to keep your desk clear, and we’ll talk about where all the paper goes in a second, and you have one thing on your desk because then it’s like: “Haha! Now it’s thunderdome! Me and the ONE piece of paper.” I usually win that one. One of the mantras of time management is, touch each piece of paper once. You get the piece of paper, you look at it, you work at it, and I think that’s extremely true for email.

It should be instructive that a professor who knew he had a short time left in his life would still put such a high value on keeping a clear desk, an empty email inbox, and writing thank-you notes.

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