How to Set Up Your Desk: Basic Principles

How to Set Up DeskNote: The following is Post 2 in the series “How to Set Up Your Desk.”  This series has been developed further and is now available as an ebook. How to Set Up Your Desk includes an expanded introduction (including how this relates to changing the world), content updates throughout, additional resources, and an appendix on how to turn an entire wall in your office into a white board (highly recommended!).





Before getting into the specifics of where to put your desk, how to organize and use your desktop and drawers most effectively, and how to set up the rest of your room/cubicle/work area, it is important to have some basic principles before us.

1. Your desk should be like a cockpit

This is perhaps the guiding principle here. You want your desk to be an effective, efficient “home base” for dealing with stuff and executing work. As such, it needs to be lean and function with ease. You want to be able to move quickly and with minimal drag.

This implies that you should have fingertip access to the things that you use and do most often, and enough surface area to do your work and create (temporary!) groupings as needed on the desktop (which you clear away when done — more on that later).

Clear space is good. Do not aim to occupy every fragment of space. A desk is for working, not storing stuff. So be a minimalist when it comes to what you have on your desk permanently.

This leaves room to spread things out when you are actually working and just plain gives room to breathe, which keeps your thinking from getting all walled up.

2. Everything at your desk falls into just a few categories

I covered the basics of how to understand the stuff at your desk in my second post on productivity tools and in my notes on workspace organization. But I did that mostly in anticipation of this series, so here’s the gist in a bit more detail.

Basically, if you have a context for understanding the types of stuff at your desk, you will be more likely to use it better and design your work area better. I think that this is more effective than just “tips on how to keep your desk clear.” The tips often don’t go to the core of the issue; they are just tips. The real solution is understanding.

There are two main categories of stuff at your desk: permanent stuff and temporary stuff.

Permanent stuff breaks down into four categories: equipment, supplies, decoration, and reference. Temporary stuff breaks down into: input to be processed, action reminders, and support materials.

We’ll cover permanent stuff first.

Examples of equipment would be your computer monitor, keyboard, mouse, telephone, and in-box. As I’ll cover in the post on organizing your desktop, that’s about all the equipment you should have on your desk.

Things like staplers, label makers, and tape dispensers are also equipment, but should be in drawers (which I’ll also discuss). The principle is that you only keep on your desk the equipment that you use every day.

Examples of supplies would be paper pads, pens, pencils, paper clips, rubber bands. Some of this could actually be considered equipment (pens, probably), but the point in regard to supplies is that they are things that need to be replenished.

This means that you keep at your desk only enough to meet your needs, and you store extras in a supply room, closet, overhead bin, or something like that. This again goes back to the principle of making your desk like a cockpit. Keep what you need there, but don’t use it to store a bunch of extra stuff, because that will clutter things up and your desk will no longer be smooth and functional.

I’ll talk about the supply area and how to set it up towards the end of the series. We’ll also cover where to keep your supplies that are kept at your desk (for example: only keep one or two pens on the desk and the rest in drawers) when we talk about the desktop and desk drawers. You can also learn more about this in my post The Tools You Need to Have (and Where to Keep Them).

If you have some things on your desk that don’t seem to be doing anything, but you like to have them around, then they probably are serving as decoration. Decoration is the third category. It’s good to have this, just keep it to a minimum or you desk will end up overly cluttered.

Empty cans of Mountain Dew do not count as decoration.

The last category of permanent stuff is reference. This doesn’t go on your desktop, but in file cabinets and on bookshelves.

Transient Stuff
So we’ve seen the four categories of permanent stuff: equipment, supplies, decoration, and reference. Transient stuff breaks into three categories: input to be processed, action reminders, and project support materials.

Input to be processed goes in your in-box. That is, it goes in a specific spot — the in-box — rather than getting scattered over the desk or whole room.

Action reminders go in your task management software or, if you are paper-based, your planner. Support material goes in files or, if it is too big to fit in a file, on a project shelf or project area away from your desktop. And obviously most of your support material these days will be electronic.

Note that you keep action reminders and support materials off of your desktop, except when you are working on them. More on that below.

Equipped with the above categories, you can look around at your desk and identify if you really need to have the stuff that you do, and if you really need to have it where you do.

If you have something that doesn’t fall into any of these categories, then it is likely the final category that I didn’t mention: junk. Examples here would be pens that no longer work and who knows what else. If you have a lot of junk, getting rid of it will open up a lot of space.

Among the stuff that you should have around, knowing what type of thing it is also helps you know whether you should keep it close by or farther away. Equipment that you use every day can stay on the desktop, otherwise it goes into drawers. Keep at hand supplies that you use, but keep them in drawers. Keep extra supplies in a supply area. Have some decoration around, but don’t overdo it. And reference stuff is good to have, but it doesn’t go on your desktop.

3. The desk is for doing work, not storing work or reminding you of work

Let’s talk a bit more about how to handle the transient stuff. I’m going to go into more detail on this in the post on organizing and managing your desktop, so I’m risking a bit of repetition here, but I think a few words need to be said here as well.

I pointed out that action reminders go on lists and support material go in files or shelves, rather than the desktop. That’s because your desk is for doing work, not storing work or reminding you of work.

In other words, don’t manage your life from stacks, as I blogged on earlier today. Manage your life from lists. So don’t create stacks of stuff to remind you of the work that you have to do. That is the biggest reason that desks become cluttered. Put what you have to do on your action lists and put the support materials in pending files or, if they are too big, a project shelf.

When you are actually working on something, then you can create piles to orchestrate your work (for example, you can see an example of this in how I process my inbox). But get to the bottom of those piles before closing up shop for the day, or, if you can’t, put them away rather than keeping them around as reminders.

This goes to one of the purposes of having a desk: to create workspace. The desktop is for the work you are doing, not for storing the work that you have to do. If you use your desktop to store your work, it will not be as functional to you for actually doing your work. And you will always have nagging mental friction around you saying “you should be doing this, but you’re not.”

Therefore, do feel free to spread out your work and create piles when you are actually doing your work. That’s one of the reasons you have a desk. But when you are done, put things away. Don’t leave them out.

(This same principle can be applied electronically, by the way, with a few variations; you can see a glimpse of how to do this in my article on email, How to Get Your Email Inbox to Zero Every Day.)

4. All of the input that comes your way is either trash, information, or action

One more word here on the specific category of transient stuff that constitutes input to be processed. The input that comes your way falls into only one of three categories:

  1. Trash
  2. Information
  3. Action items

This makes it easier to know how to handle things. If an item is trash, toss it immediately.

If it is information, then either read it and then toss it or, if you want to keep it, read it and then file it (which brings up filing, which I will get to one of these days!). Don’t keep it on your desk. File it. File it. Don’t let clutter grow.

If it is an action item, then do it right away if it is less than two minutes. If it will take longer than two minutes, then put the action on one of your next action lists (if you don’t have any action lists, or aren’t clear on how to make the best use of them, I know that begs for a series of posts as well).

After putting the action on your list, if you still need the actual item, then put it with your support material, as discussed above, and make a note by the item on your list so you remember to bring it out when you work on that action.

In this way, you can process the new input that comes your way without resorting to turning your desk into a storage unit for stuff that you have to deal with.

5. Create work centers

Since a desk is for doing your work, you design the structure and flow of your desk to accommodate this. This is most effectively done if you think in terms of creating centers.

I’m going to talk more about how to set up these work centers are later in this series, in the post on organizing your actual desktop. But for now, I’ll point out that you create centers on your desktop, desk drawers, and file drawers.

On your desktop, the key centers will likely be phone center, computer center, capture tool center, and work center. There are also principles for best orchestrating the flow of work in your work center.

In your drawers, centers include: writing center, mailing/finance center (if needed), and stapler/filing center. In your files, the major divisions (= centers) are: pending, projects, operations, reference, and archive.

5. Use P-L-A-C-E to organize things intelligently

P-L-A-C-E, which comes from the book Organizing for Dummies (a really useful book, by the way), is a really helpful approach to organizing anything. So it comes in handy as a general approach to use when organizing your desk and office/cubicle.

I’ll talk more about how to specifically apply it when we talk later about the details of organizing your desktop and drawers. But for now, here’s the gist:

P urge. Get rid of what is unnecessary, especially pens that don’t work.

L ike with like. This means that you group like things together, just like you learned in high school English. This is really the central principle to organizing anything.

A ccess. When you have your groupings determined, you place them according to your access needs. This is why, for example, extra supplies go off in a supply closet or other out of the way place, rather than in your drawers. You don’t want stuff you don’t have to access as much getting in your way when accessing stuff you do need a lot.

C ontain. Don’t just let stuff run loose. Use drawer dividers and other types of containers when relevant.

E valuate. When you are done, step back and contemplate how you like it and make sure it works well for you. Make any adjustments.

6. Have interchangeable systems at home and work

David Allen is right when he says: “Don’t skimp on work space at home. It’s critical that you have at least a satellite home system identical to the one in your office.”

There are two key points there. First, many people are on top of things pretty well at work, but don’t apply those same principles at home. Be organized and effective both at work and at home. Don’t think you’re off the hook at home in the need to be effective (both in terms of executing efficient workflow and building solid relationships).

I like what David Allen says here on the value of setting things up well at home as well as work:

Many people I’ve worked with have been somewhat embarrassed by the degree of chaos that reigns in their homes, in contrast to their offices at work; they’ve gotten tremendous value from giving themselves permission to establish the same setup in both places. If you’re like many of them, you’ll find that a weekend spent setting up a home workstation can make a revolutionary change in your ability to organize your life. (Getting Things Done, 90).

Second, your system at home should mirror your system at work. This makes it easier, because you don’t have to learn one set of behaviors at work only to have to follow a different set of behaviors to use your desk/work area at home.

So, for example, my laptop goes at the same spot on the desk both at home and at work. My in box is in the same location. The drawers are in the same spots with similar stuff (with a few exceptions for stuff that I need to have at work that I don’t need at home, and a few accommodations to structural things that can’t be changed). And I have the same workflow pattern of left is for new stuff, right is for stuff to take somewhere, and so forth.

7. Have a mobile component

Last of all: You should not simply have a work center at home and work; you should also have a mobile dimension.

The mobile component basically consists of your briefcase with your laptop (I’ll maybe post in the future on how to set up your briefcase effectively). Here’s how David Allen puts the importance of this:

Many people lose opportunities to be productive because they’re not equipped to take advantage of the odd moments and windows of time that open up as they move from one place to another, or when they’re in off-site environments. The combination of a good processing style, the right tools, and good interconnected systems at home and at work can make traveling a highly leveraged way to get certain kinds of work done. (Getting Things Done, 90)

Now we have before us some of the primary principles governing how to set up and use your desk and general work area effectively. Now we’ll apply them specifically to where to put your desk and to organizing your desktop, drawers, and the rest of the room/cubicle.

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
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  • Sunil Raheja

    Wow! This post is almost 5 years old, but it has some nuggets of wisdom – especially challenged by keeping a clear workspace. Now to put that into action!

  • Sunil Raheja

    Wow! This post is almost 5 years old, but it has some nuggets of wisdom – especially challenged by keeping a clear workspace. Now to put that into action!