As we work to improve our productivity and output, one element to our process often gets overlooked as a powerful tool for increasing efficiency: the environment where we do our work.
It’s intuitive to consider. What could possibly matter more to your work than the place where your work happens? And yet, so many of us neglect to examine how our workspace might be influencing our output. And many of us are thoroughly undisciplined about keeping structure in our work environments.
You start to notice it when you really get swamped. Papers seem to appear out of nowhere, and start to multiply. You don’t have anywhere to put them, so you just shove them to the side or throw them on the floor. Things start to feel a bit more claustrophobic. You go to look for that thing you always use – and you can’t find it. Reach for a pen and there are none in sight, even though you swear you saw, like, three just yesterday. The same kind of experience is doubled on your computer, where your “Desktop” looks like a minefield, and even spotlight search can’t help you find the documents you need.
This is disorganization. And it is not sustainable.
A well-organized workspace can change so much about our work and our headspace. And it’s only in the absence of organization that we truly begin to notice what it gives us – serenity, focus, a clear mind, and energy.
The environment in which you work influences and colors your work and your experience. So let’s try to set ours up to be the most helpful to our journey that it can be.
Here’s how to thoughtfully calibrate your workspace to best serve your work.
Treat it like a real office
First of all: this is your place of work. Even if it’s in your home, or you only have a portion of a shared space, or even if you’ve been forced to section off a corner of a Starbucks for yourself, it’s still true. This is where you work. So, as much as you can, treat it like so.
You should only do work here. You shouldn’t play games or browse the internet, if you can help it. No Netflix. I’ll make an exception for eating lunch at your desk and watching a YouTube video.
Physically leave the room to take a break, or to do another type of activity. Leave it vacant on the weekends, or any time you’re not working. Why not dress in specific “work-type” clothes when you step into the space? You’re going to work aren’t you?
This might all sound silly, but there are countless stories of people having real success tricking their brains into thinking their office (or their area, or their table) is a serious place where serious work happens.
Start with a blank slate
There are few things more satisfying or rewarding to a creative or really any type of worker, than a blank canvass. Give yourself the gift of a blank desktop and, as much as you can, a blank surrounding area devoid of clutter that you can start to build up. Give yourself the freedom to build upon it and think carefully for the first time in a while where you place things, and why.
If you find yourself swimming too deep in paper and knick-knacks and pens and things at the outset, we might have to try some Marie Kondo-ing. Gather everything off of all surfaces from your workspace, and arrange them somewhere like a bed or a stretch of floor. Comb through it all for things you could or should easily throw out. Separate the actually important things and set aside. Then, with however much is leftover, start making judgement calls about their true value to you and your process.
As you start moving things around and throwing other things out, you might find that starting a new desk or organizational type product also has a wonderful kind of productive procrastination flavor to it. Make no mistake: this is absolutely a worthwhile undertaking, and it will be well worth it to do. And hopefully, you’ll enjoy the process. But you should really only let yourself take on this job once or twice, and only when absolutely necessary. After that, just work to maintain what you’ve built as you work. Otherwise, you just turn into that guy polishing his tools and moving them around the room instead of, you know, putting them to work.
Now that we have a canvas, let’s fill it. What kind of work are you going to be doing in this workspace? What kind of headspace do you need to be in when you work here?
Go fact-finding with yourself. What do you feel like you need to work? What items or systems make work easier and more effective? What environments have made you feel the most productive? Where have you felt the most at ease?
Are you the type that likes morning reflections and bullet journals over coffee, with birds chirping outside the window? You’re allowed some extra space to spread out with actual pieces of paper and leather-bound notebooks and coasters for coffee mugs.
Are you a video editor or coder that just needs to turn out the lights and blast your eyes with computer screens for hours at a time? Maybe you can be a little bit more ruthless with your minimalism. Sure, one writing pad and pen can come in handy but, keep them to the side. Keep things clear for your trinity of monitor, mouse, keyboard.
What about a working parent that needs to cross-reference four different family calendars and handle adult-level paperwork? I’d be okay with you busting out your color coding systems and different fancy papers and poster boards, if that’s how you operate. Just stay dilligent to yourself about maintaining the essentialism of every piece you bring in – and finding a proper place to store it.
No matter who you are, give yourself a lamp, and a charging station for your phone, and a place to put a drink.
Think about your weaknesses
Think to yourself: what usually knocks you off your game? What kind of stuff do you remember most consistently distracting you, or worse yet, actually pulling you up from your seat?
Is it something flashing on a screen? If that’s your biggest issue, then sorry – you’re not one of those people that’s allowed to have their phone on their desk.
Is it sound that bothers you the most? Kids crying, or a TV playing downstairs? You should invest in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. While they might not block every little thing out (though the best ones get pretty close to doing so) they create this wonderful feeling of a vacuum of sound when you turn them on – like they’re creating an extra step of distance between your ears and your mind and the entire loud outside world.
More self-reflection: what do you feel like would help you in your day to day? Or what do you feel yourself reaching for the most often? Put those items close to you, in arm’s reach. If they’re a multiple-times-an-hour level of usage, you can even build a place for them into your desk setup, like a nice hook to hang those new headphones on.
Position your desk looking away from everything that is interesting. This includes a doorway, or a TV, or view of any high traffic areas. The only exception I might allow for is a window, for daydreaming and wistfully looking out the window. I can’t see how much harm that could cause.
Handle incoming traffic
Every few months, I block off a Sunday to try and get back to inbox zero in both my digital and physical workplaces, and sift through all the ditritus and clutter that’s built up in my office over time. It sounds boring, but it’s a rewarding experience that leaves me feeling light and fresh. Many people do a similar routine with a similar frequency – a “Spring Cleaning” of sorts. It’s effective and helpful, for what it is.
But if you’re anything like me, disorganization tries to crawl back in almost immediately. Within a week or two, there are 20 to 30 emails “marked as read” but still sitting smugly in your inbox. Likewise, there’s always some new important-looking document that arrived in the mail that you haven’t figured out what to do with yet.
It’s much easier said than done, but try to cut that sneaky mail off at the pass. Dedicate one day every single week to quote-unquote “filing your inboxes.” Pre-sort your mail from insurance companies and car payments or your place of business. You’ll start recognizing repeat offenders by their return address stamp and their envelope style. At the very least, try to start every Monday with an empty inbox. Think about how light and agile you’ll feel, knowing your focus can be singular and direct and un-bogged down, at least as you get your week started.
The most important part of building a nice new machine like this for yourself, after all, is making sure it’s able to keep running without getting bogged down. Mail and email and tasks left unattended are the dust and rust that pose the most danger to your machine in the most immediate future.
Get creative with storage
Beyond buying filing cabinets or filing up shelves, think about where you can store things that will keep them in reach, but also out of sight and out of mind. These should be for for those items you only reach for two to three times a month – hard drives, speciality cables, certain pens or colored art supplies, that sort of thing.
I have a filing cabinet under my desk that’s placed in a way that it’s not visible as you walk by. If you’re someone who has their desk in their bedroom (or a bed in their office), stack items under the bed.
If these sound like the first things you learned about storage solutions as a freshman in college, it’s because they are. These ideas don’t have to be complicated, or even special. They just have to get the job done. The real interesting and creative work is what happens once you get your space organized and optimized.
If you really want to be an enthusiast, get into nerdy stuff like cable management – velcro ties and things like that. Run cables up and down the back of your desk’s legs so you can’t see them from any head-on angle. I put Command Strips on my charging bricks and affix them to the bottom of my desk. Now it just feels like everything is floating and wireless and magical. I don’t have to see the things that make my tools work – I just see my tools. It lets everything melt into the background and let me focus on being creative.
Procure an apparatus of some kind that can take in paper and files and random important items. It doesn’t have to be a filing cabinet, although that’s the simplest and most fool-proof method. Those are also nice because if you’re one of those actual adults who has real paper to sort, most of them will fit those nifty little paper dividers you can buy at OfficeMax.
But regardless, get something whose given purpose is to organize and file things. In my cheap filing cabinet from Walmart, I have one drawer for “tech” things – extra computer mouse, hard drives, cables (it’s a real game changer if you get cable ties for those). Then another one for single-use-but-still-important equipment, like microphones and a mixer for recording voiceovers or podcasts. And yes, I have an aspirational paper filing system. Pay stubs, receipts, stuff like that.
If you’re comfortable with scanning your documents so you have electronic copies of them, consider setting up a matching electronic system on your computer. That way, in an ideal world, you can keep only the obnoxiously important things – social security card and birth certificate, un-laminated and fragile as ever, and that really-important-seeming stuff that you could just never imagine throwing out. The rest can be digitized.
Build in inspiration
However that whole process shakes out and regardless of how serene you feel, as you finally settle in to work at your nice new desk, you still might become discouraged or bogged down. Because work, after all, is still work. When that happens, look again to your environment to keep your head in the game.
Do you have an idea of what kind of thing consistently inspires you? Some like famous smart-sounding quotes, or videos with motivational speakers. Others like to see examples of people doing impressive or worthwhile things.
One year in college, I covered a wall in my dorm, floor to ceiling, with Post-It Notes. I would write quotes on them – famous phrases or ones from my own life that I thought were inspiring, or funny. All that year I would look up, bored, from my homework, and my eyes would land on a new quote. Instead of getting distracted, it kept me in a sort of positive loop of inspiration. Just a tiny thing like that – something physical in my environment, that led my brain to a quick positive undistracting place – would give me the little boost I needed to stay on task, and stay intentional.
It’s easy to be cynical and poke fun of those people that dot every blank surface of their workspace with Funko Pop! figures. But they probably have something figured out that a lot of us don’t. If something makes you happy and puts a smile on your face while you work, it’s honestly probably worth its weight in gold.
Those are the kind of intangibles a positive workspace is supposed to provide you. Little sources of energy and even joy, as you trudge through your workday. You can even go classic style and have just a single photo of your family on the corner of your desk, like a suit-wearing businessman.
Whatever it is, I recommend you explore the possibility of adding at least one fun little trinket. You might be surprised how much you value it throughout your day. (Unless your version of a trinket is the maximum serenity you achieve by having a literally spotless desk – that’s its own brand of specialness, and I get it. Do you.)
Put it back together when you’re done
Our brains are well-known for how they work in funny ways. One of the most compelling secrets to hacking them that I’ve come across is the recognition of patterns. For years now, as I have entered my workspace in the morning, I’ve followed a similar routine: flip on the lights, flip on the first monitor, and flip on the second monitor. In that order. Suddenly a dark room is filled with light, and new blinking information, and my eyes take it all in, waking up.
This could be anything – flipping on a desk lamp, or the bluetooth switch on a wireless keyboard. Or just pulling out your chair and sitting in it with intentional posture. Just make sure it’s the same thing every time.
Your brain, after a while, will take it as, “Oh, we’re working now. We’re in the room and they just did the thing. We must be working.”
And it’s even better at night, when you want to wrap things up quickly. Monitor 1 off, monitor 2 off, keyboard and mouse. Click, click. Food wrappers into garbage can. Chair tucked in. And finally, lights off. It feels, in a silly way, like everything is going to sleep. Your brain takes it the same way too. I’ve gotten to the point, especially in the work-from-home era, when I’m working late nights, where doing this little routine actually makes me feel 1% more tired. Because I know next up is teeth brushing, and then sleep.
Then, the next morning you’ll enter to a clean slate. No artifacts from the night before.
I’m serious. Keep this place clean. Do a light sweep every day as you turn off the lights, and something more intensive every Friday or maybe Sunday. Hopefully if you do the first two parts right you won’t need to do a deep clean every month or so – although that couldn’t hurt.
Congratulations, you made it through a work day. Resist the urge to throw all your toys on the ground and wander off, and you’ll already be well on your way towards something positive tomorrow.
At the very least
At the end of the day, more than anything, just make sure you’ve approached your workspace or desk with a healthy degree of intention and thought. Make as much effort as you can manage to keep it clean and organized. Think about developing systems that work for you to keep things simple for yourself and your workflow. And treat your workspace with the reverence and professionalism you would treat an office where you make your living. You might not feel it immediately, but you’ll be helping yourself, your peace of mind, and your productivity a tremendous amount in the long run.
This post from our friends at Redfin sought advice on organization from eleven different productivity experts from across the country. Check it out for some more tips on how to best declutter and organize your home and workspace!