How to Set Up Your Desk: An Introduction

Post 1 in the series: How to Set Up Your Desk

Note: This series is now available as an ebook at Amazon, with an expanded introduction (on how this relates to changing the world, and some other things), some various updates throughout, a list of further resources, and an appendix on how to turn an entire wall in your office into a white board (highly recommended!).

Posts in This Series

  1. How to Set Up Your Desk: An Introduction
  2. How to Set Up Your Desk: Basic Principles
  3. Excursus: Against Desk Hotels
  4. The Four Ways to Configure a Desk
  5. Where to Put Your Desk
  6. What to Put on Your Desktop and How to Use It
  7. What to Put in Your Desk Drawers and How to Use Them
  8. The Rest of the Room: How to Set Up Your Office

To follow up on our recent series on recommended productivity tools, we’re starting a series today on how to set up your desk.

Setting up your desk well is something that all of us have to deal with, and yet there is almost nothing out there on how to do it. There is some good advice here and there, but it is typically scattered. The only thorough treatment of desk setup that I know of is in Organizing for Dummies. The chapter is very helpful, but it is not online. There is no single online place to go to in order to get a clear view of how to make your desk work for you as effectively as possible.

So that’s what this series aims to do.

Why Desk Setup Matters
It makes sense to think through your workspace setup for several reasons.

First, when you have your desk set up well you minimize resistance to carrying out your work and thus can get more work done. That’s the key principle here: Set your desk up well in order to minimize resistance so that you can give your focus and energy to actually doing your work.

Second, you will simply work better if you have your desk set up well and know how to use it. Which is another one of my aims here: A desk is a workflow system. Therefore we ought to approach it with intentionality and purpose. We can be more effective when we know how to use our desks and are intentional, rather than ad hoc, because we deal with them every day and have to use them to get all sorts of important things done. The principle here is: Understand your tools and know how to make the most of them.

Third, when your desk is not set up well it creates drag and thus drains time, energy, and focus. I like how they put this in Organizing for Dummies:

You don’t need to be an efficiency expert, interior designer, or feng shui master specializing in the Chinese art of placement to know that the right work space can set you up for success, while a whatever approach to your workplace layout can sap your time, energy, concentration, and creativity” (p. 183).

Or, to put it another way: “Clutter sucks creativity and energy from your brain” (To Do Doing Done, p. 92).

Fourth, you use your desk about every day, and knowing how to use it is not hard to figure out. So the benefits you get from this are large, but the cost involved is small.

Fifth, it makes work more fun when you know how to use your desk. A well-run desk is a work of art!

Who Needs to Do This?
Not just people that work in an office. I like how David Allen puts it:

A functional work space is critical. If you don’t already have a dedicated work space and in-basket, get them now. That goes for students, homemakers, and retirees, too. Everyone must have a physical locus of control from which to deal with everything else. (Getting Things Done, 89.)

I got interested in this subject years ago largely as an outgrowth of implementing GTD. After putting the task management systems in place, it made sense to make the other aspects of my work as smooth and efficient as possible as well.

So I did some reading on desk setup, engaged in some trial and error, and developed some basic principles. (And then kept going with this trajectory in regard to every other room in my house so that I could minimize drag wherever I could — yes, a bit strange, I know!)

On Flexibility

I don’t want to say here that there is only one right way to set up your desk. There are some pretty tricky situations given the setups that are often thrust upon us, such as odd-shaped cubicles or, if we have an office, uncooperative room layouts. And personal preference also plays a huge role as well.

The problem I found, though, is that these factors lead many to give the advice of “just do what works for you.” Which really gives no guidance at all. The result, I found, was that I had to think about my desk a lot more than I wanted.

So although individual situations and preferences vary, there are principles for how to do this more effectively than otherwise. The key is to apply the principles in light of your own individual preferences and specific situation.

To summarize: Setting up your desk well and knowing how to use it minimizes resistance to your work and makes it more enjoyable. The result is that you are more drawn to actually do your work, giving you a productivity edge that also makes work feel less like work. And you won’t have all sorts of piles getting in your way.

October 13, 2009 | Filed Under Desk Setup | 14 Comments 

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