In a 1961 contribution to Analog, Maurice Price explained that, while a new engineer might arrive to a clean desk, a “cycle of confusion” quickly begins as papers pile up so deeply that the engineer can do little more than fish old technical journals from the pile and read them (this is known as “keeping up with the state of the art”). Eventually the engineer resolves to clean the desk, but that only returns the system to the start of the cycle. The key equation is
C = K1 exp (K2t).
“In this equation K1 is the constant of confusion and K2 is the coefficient of chaos. These may vary from desk to desk and from engineer to engineer, but the general form of the curve is not altered. Note that the amount of work to be done does not affect the curve at all. This is because the amount of work expands to overflow the available desk area.”
The only way to break the cycle is to promote the engineer, but that only restarts the cycle at a new desk. And productivity and concentration actually increase with clutter. So the best solution is for the engineer to “bring his desk to the state of stagnation as soon as possible. From then on, the desk should be ignored completely. All work must be carried out by telephone.”
(Maurice Price, “An Introduction to the Calculus of Desk-Clearing,” Analog Science Fact & Fiction, British edition, 1961, 68-72.)