No matter how much I focus, no matter how many filing systems I try, my desk still seems to accumulate reports and notes and half-finished books and articles. The piles just mount up. Maybe it’s my personality, or maybe it’s the nature of my work. The other day I found an old invoice marked “paid” from three years ago. It was tucked away in a drawer, waiting to surprise me, I suppose. I have no idea how it got there or why I saved it after paying it. A big part of my life is a battle of attrition with seemingly endless swarms of paper. The shredder is my ally. The printer is my enemy.
In some ways, my desk is a validation of the law of entropy, the notion that disorder and chaos increase over time. It’s like putting a spoonful of jam into a bowl of oatmeal: as you stir the oatmeal, the jam gradually disperses. But if you reverse direction and stir backwards, the jam doesn’t come back together. It just spreads out a little more.
In every enterprise, people organize around certain goals: sales, client service, financial reporting, and so on. For every useful arrangement of affairs there are dozens of alternatives that get us nowhere. And even when you have an effective organization, people forget training, cut corners, and make mistakes. Equipment breaks down or becomes outdated and inefficient. Disorder and decay gradually take over.
But there’s a way to fight entropy: by channeling energy into a system in an organized way. Businesses can reduce disorder through audits, reporting, and accountability. Given a strong team, clear goals, and the right incentives, a workplace becomes orderly and efficient.
There’s always a balance, however, between chaos and control, between creativity and structure. A desert is a very orderly place. But not much grows there. By contrast, jungles are highly productive, but it’s almost impossible get anywhere.
Mojave Desert. Photo: Mark Wilson. Source: Wikimedia
In our work, in our portfolios, and in our lives, we ought to have regular clean up days, times set aside to clear away the clutter and sort out what has to be saved and what we should pitch. There’s no need to be surprised by old invoices or hidden responsibilities. As writer and sometime farmer Wendell Berry likes to say, it’s important not to have so much clutter that you’ll be relieved if your house burns down.
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
Charter Trust Company
“The Best Trust Company in New England”