What to Put on Your Desktop and How to Use It

Note: The following is Post 6 in the series “How to Set Up Your Desk.”  This series has been developed further and is now available as an ebook on Amazon

When it comes to your desktop, there are three things to know: what items to have on your desktop, how to arrange them, and how to use your desktop.

What Goes on Your Desktop
As I’ve mentioned before, the main principle here is to minimize the number of items you keep on your desk. Simplicity rules the day here. This will make your desk feel less cluttered and create a smoother workflow. It also just plain looks better.

The best way to keep things on your desktop to a minimum is to only give something a permanent place on your desktop if you use it more than once a day. Even then, if it is easy to access that item via a drawer, it should probably go in a drawer.

This would mean, for example, that unless you really love your stapler, it should go in a drawer. Likewise, no desk organizer-things. And pen and pencil cups are unnecessary. If you really like them they can work fine, but really it works great to have just one pen and one (mechanical) pencil on your desk, laying flat, and the rest in drawers.

The main things you need to have on your desktop are:

  1. External monitor (if you connect your laptop to it to provide a second screen)
  2. Mouse and keyboard
  3. Laptop stand (so that it will be at the height of your external monitor)
  4. Pad of paper
  5. Pen and pencil (lying flat, rather than in a pencil cup)
  6. Inbox (this kind works well)

You might also find it useful to have:

  1. Docking unit for your iPhone or iPod (if you have one)
  2. Desk lamp (if needed)
  3. Telephone (land line; this would be a must at work, but at home I see it as optional if you primarily use your cell)
  4. Printer (if you have room for one without cluttering your desk)
  5. Decorations (just don’t overdo it; if you have an actual office, pictures can also go on shelves instead of the desk)
  6. Any other items necessary to your specific situation (but keep it to a minimum!). For example, I have my wireless router and modem behind my monitor, as they don’t get in the way back there and this also gives me easy access to them when I have a problem. (However, one of these days I will probably move them to another room to get them out of here and simplify a bit more.)

Beyond that, be careful. It’s easy to justify adding things, but the end result can easily be a cluttered desk that saps your energy.

Here are a few more details on some of the items mentioned above.

First, I recommend hooking up your laptop to an external monitor because it allows you to work on a bigger screen. Your laptop screen will also become a second monitor, thus resulting in a good increase in screen real estate. This is important because the best way to increase white collar productivity is to increase screen size. (So get the biggest possible monitor that you can.)

Second, it also makes sense to have a laptop stand so that your laptop will be elevated to the height of your screen. Many of these also provide additional USB ports.

Third, a docking unit for your iPhone makes sense because it saves time by preventing you from having to pull out a pull out the cord each time you want to sync your iPhone.

Fourth, it can save a lot of time to have a basic printer right at your desk so you don’t have to walk to one of the main printers at your work every time that you print something. On the other hand, it takes up space at your desk and you might not print enough to make it worthwhile.

How to Arrange Things on Your Desktop
I find that it works best to place my monitor in front of me (obviously) and then everything else on the left side. This stems from a few factors.

First, the inbox goes on the left side because of the “left to right” workflow pattern. (New stuff goes on the left, you deal with it in front of you, and outgoing stuff goes on the right.)

Second, the phone belongs on the opposite of your preferred side (the left side, if you are right handed) because that leaves your preferred hand available to dial or jott down any notes. You also don’t have the cord going across your desk when you use it. (If you are left-handed, then the left side won’t provide these benefits, but it will still sync with the fact that everything else is on that side.)

Third, having the inbox on the left side implies that the paper pad would also be on the left side, since any notes you create would be new input and thus would go into your inbox if you don’t handle them right away. And since the paper pads are on the left side, it makes sense to put the pen and (mechanical) pencil right beside them.

And as long as those items are on the left side, it makes sense to put everything else on the left side. This also leaves your right side free, which is important because it is the area you would look over when meeting with people.

So, to summarize, everything goes on the left side and the right side remains open. As a corollary to this, then, position your desk to make the visitor area across the right side of your desk (outlined in the previous post).

The sequence of my items goes like this: My monitor is right in front of me. Right beneath it is my iPhone dock, and right in front of it are my keyboard and mouse. Behind the monitor are my router and modem. To the left of my monitor is my laptop stand and laptop. To the left of that is my pad of paper, pen, and pencil (when not in use). At work, to the left of that is my phone. At home I don’t keep a phone at my desk, so to the left of the paper pad is my inbox (at work the inbox then goes just to the left of the phone).

At work, to the left of my inbox at work are some pictures of my family. Then, far to the left of that across that portion of the U is my printer.

At home to the left of my inbox is a desk lamp and to the left of that is my printer. Here’s my home setup (which you’ve seen a lot by now):

And here’s my work setup (which you’ve also seen a lot by now):

How to Use Your Desktop

I mentioned in the second post in this series that everything at your desk falls into two categories: permanent stuff and transient stuff. Permanent stuff includes four things: equipment, supplies, decoration, and reference (which actually goes in drawers and on shelves, rather than on the desktop). Transient stuff includes three things: input to be processed, action reminders, and support material.

The thing to notice is that all work falls into the transient category.

In other words, you don’t store work on your desk. Your desktop is for doing your work, not for storing your work.

What goes on your desktop permanently is the equipment used for doing your work. Any work items flow across your desk, but should not stay long. Things that you need to keep around go into files, not piles on the desktop.

With this in mind, here’s a rundown on the process I recommend for how to use your desk.

The workflow goes from left to right. When new input comes, it goes into your inbox on the left. When it’s time to process those items, handle the items in the middle, right in front of you. Any piles that need to be taken somewhere else go on the right side.

If you have an L-shaped or U-shaped desk, you can use the “L” part of the desktop for these out piles. If you have a rectangular setup, you can still do things this way by just using the floor. If you have a parallel arrangement you can put them on the desktop behind you.

If you need to group things into piles so that you can work on them in batches (things to read, notes to enter onto your action lists, etc.), it tends to work best to create those piles on the left side. As I’ve discussed before, it can be efficient to create piles. You just need to work to the end of those piles right away, rather than keeping them around.

Processing your inbox, of course, is just one type of work and hopefully it doesn’t take up too much time. When you’re doing other work the left and right sides work well for spreading out reference material and other support items.

There isn’t any specific system to give with that — you just put things wherever they are most helpful to you at the moment. The system is that you kept your desk clear so that it is available in this way when you are working on things. And so when you are done or at a point where you won’t be able to get back to the project for a while, but the reference materials away and the support items back into files, so that the desktop remains clear for whatever is next.

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
  • http://staffaction.blogspot.com staffaction

    excepting institutional limitations the only rule I don’t follow is where I place my pad of paper and pen. I tend to place it on the right side right next to the mouse.

    The logic here is that since I’m right-handed it’s easy to make a quick note if my right hand is already on the mouse or keyboard. Those quick notes are either transferred right away or of the nature that they don’t even need to be transferred.

  • Junaid

    Its almost 4 years old post, but if you could tell me the depth of table from ends and depth from center of curve till the V end, that will help me a lot to decide the size of my table glass top, i have 27″ imac

  • Mr. Shiz

    Desks and desktops of PCs are very different things.