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Essential Tools for a Productive Workspace Environment [Audio]

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Aaron: You’re listening to podcast by Asian Efficiency. I’m Aaron.

Thanh: And I’m Thanh.

Aaron: And today we want to talk about the essential tools that you need to be productive.

Thanh: Now everyone has different preferences, different tastes and different modes with what they want in a productive environment. And so today we’re going to share a little bit about our own environments and what we kind of did was analyzed and looked at different set ups, different offices and see, and looked at what really worked for certain people, and what didn’t. And in this podcast we’re going to talk about how to set up your own productive office environment.

Aaron: Yeah, so we’re going to start at the very beginning, at the bare bones. So at the very minimum, you need a computer, and you need a set of earphones. At Asian Efficiency we’re very big Apple advocates, so we’d rather say you need a Macbook and earphones, but a laptop will also do.

Macbook Pro

Macbook = Productivity.

Thanh: And one thing we’ve noticed is most of our listeners and readers are actually modern knowledge workers, and a lot of them are also people who travel a lot, and people who run their own online businesses, and so most of our readers have a laptop, which is one of our bare minimums. But also, we want to add on top of that, the earphones, because if you travel a lot and you work remotely a lot, then having those earphones is essential, because it will allow you to block out any noise while you’re working, it will also make it harder for people to interrupt you.

Aaron: Yeah, we’d recommend you invest in a good pair of isolation earphones. Like, the standard iPod earbuds that you see everywhere usually aren’t good enough because they don’t block out ambient noise. The type of earphones that you’re after are in-ear earphones that sit in your ear canal, and actually seal over the ear canal so that all the noise from outside is blocked out. Now, it’s not even necessary to play music on the earphones while you have them in, sometimes it’s just useful to have them in, to stop other people from bothering you when you’re working, or to block out all the external noise.

Shure Earphones

Some of the best isolation earphones you can get. AE approved.

Now the one thing you want to keep in mind about working with a laptop, is that the advantage of having a laptop is that you can work from anywhere. At the same time, that’s also the disadvantage of having a laptop. So, if you’re a remote knowledge worker and you happen to work from home, what you want to do is try to separate your work location from where you sleep, where you eat, where you do other things. What this does, is it helps your brain differentiate and puts you in the right frequency for working or for your day-to-day living depending on where you are in your house.

Thanh: Yeah, I totally agree with that. I uh, I used to live in an apartment back in LA, and I didn’t have my own office environment back home, so I did most of my work within my own bedroom and I had like a huge desk where I could sit. But what I started noticing was since I was in the same place the whole time, it was really hard for me to distinguish between when I was working, and when I was not. And so sometimes I would feel really overworked, even though I wasn’t working because I always felt like being in that room, was when I was supposed to work, but also I was sleeping in that room. So it was very hard for my brain and for myself to really see if I was working or not, and to distinguish that. So while we’re on the topic of computers, let’s talk a little bit about computer gear. Aaron, what do you think is essential and not.

Aaron: So a couple of the other tools that we have, are a tablet, in the form of an iPad, and a smartphone, in our case in the form of an iPhone. Now, these are things that are optional, but if you do knowledge work they’re both items that make your working time specifically more productive. So a tablet, is essentially a second monitor for your computer, but it’s different from an external monitor in the sense that it’s also a reference device for documents and media. Now when we’re producing content for Asian Efficiency, we often use tablets for viewing mindmaps or viewing notes when we’re doing for example, podcasts like this one.

Thanh: Now one thing you want to keep in mind is if you’re listening to this, you definitely want to check out our Sync article, because if you use a tablet and a smartphone, you always want to make sure the data on those devices are always up-to-date. So make sure you either use a form of syncing, either through MobileMe in Apple services, or Google Sync, or Dropbox.

Aaron: Yeah, and your smartphone, whether it’s an Android device or an iPhone, as they say, is an absolute game-changer. Especially in the workplace and especially for people who are solo entrepreneurs or freelancers. Because with the right applications, your iPhone or your smartphone is more than just a phone, it’s a camera, it’s a document scanner, it’s a second web browsing device and it’s also your office radio all packed into one.

Thanh: I actually want to make a stronger case that any knowledge worker nowadays needs to have a, um, smartphone, just because all the apps that it has and any of the features that any smartphone has, it’s such a like time-saver in so many ways. Let’s say you get lost, you have the GPS feature on your phone or a Maps feature. Let’s say you need to take some photos of something. Instead of carrying around a digital camera, most smartphones have a camera. Let’s say you need to scan documents – well nowadays, you can use your camera on your phone, as a scanner. And we’ve actually written an article about that, on uh, going paperless with Evernote with your iPhone.

Aaron: Yeah, just as an example of that, a couple of months ago, a friend of mine was in Bangkok and he had to send his bank, documentation, to get a new credit card issued for him, because he had lost his. So we were sitting in a coffee shop, in one of the malls here, and all we had were laptops, phone, and the documents that he needed to scan in. So, using a smartphone, and then using wireless connectivity, we were able to scan in all his paperwork, make it look pretty on the computer and then fax it through an online Internet connection direct to his bank. Now, I guess to some people listening that doesn’t seem too revolutionary or anything, but if you stop and think about it, it really is. Because traditionally, in order to fax something to say the United States from Thailand, you would have to go to a proper office, or go to an office supply store and hunt down a fax machine and work through all the paperwork there, whereas with the technology available, with all this equipment nowadays, you can just do it sitting from Starbucks somewhere in a mall.

iPad and iPhone

You need these.

Thanh: So let’s talk a little bit about the other gear that we need to be productive. Let’s start out with monitors.

Aaron: Now, ideally, if you have your own workspace, a large monitor is something very nice to have. The main reason for this, is simply, you get more screen real estate at a higher resolution, so you can… not necessarily have more windows open, but you can have a better reference of what’s on you screen. For example, if you’re editing a Word document, you know, a large monitor, could have two A4 pages side-by-side, or two Letter-sized pages side-by-side, rather than on a laptop screen where you can only open, you know, part of a page at a time.

Beyond just the monitor, having somewhere to put your laptop, so whether that’s a laptop dock of sorts, or a laptop stand, just to place your laptop on. Having a USB hub to plug in your peripherals. Having an external mouse and keyboard, some speakers and a wireless networking setup, as well as having a mousepad and a headset. These are all things that, while you don’t need them necessarily to work, they do make the time that you spend working a lot more comfortable, and a lot more productive.

Thanh: Yeah they aren’t really necessary, they’re just nice things to have. Especially when it comes to monitors. I mean, there are two camps about this. One says get the biggest monitor you can get, so that everything fits on one screen. The other camp is get two monitors, and split your view that way. Test to see what works for you, one is not necessarily better than the other, although there was initial research that said you need only a certain amount of pixels to get most of your work done. But test what works for you, either get one big monitor, like a 30-inch, or get two bigger monitors, maybe two 24-inches. And, you know, see what works for you. Not everyone has the same preferences of course.

Aaron: So beyond just your monitor and your place to put your computer, if you happen to have the luxury of having a separate work room of study, or an office, there are a couple of things we’d recommend. The first is a nice office chair that’s comfortable to sit in. Now there’s no perfect chair out there, you simply need to go to a furniture store and try out a lot of different chairs, to find out what works for you.

Thanh: Yeah, and don’t be afraid to spend a lot of time on this, ’cause, if you think about it, you have to spend most of your day on the chair, especially when you do uh, work on the computer. So, find the chair that is most suitable for you. So, either based on your height, how tall you are, the height of your desk; these are all things you want to keep in mind. I know you have one of your favorite chairs.

Aaron: Yeah, my personal favorite is the Aeron Chair by Herman Miller. If you live in the US or an English-speaking country, it’s probably relatively easy to get. Anywhere else in the world, and it’s uh, a bit of a pain to track down. But basically it’s a customized chair that comes in different sizes, and has a lot of bells and whistles. The main benefit of the chair is that the material that it’s made from is, it’s kind of a uh, a weave fabric, that lets air circulation flow through. So, the problem with a lot of office chairs, especially the foam ones, is that you sit on them and they get really warm after a while. With an Aeron Chair you can sit on it all day, and because air flows through the weave, you never really get warm, and it’s just very comfortable and ergonomic.

The other thing that is worth having if you have your own workspace, is a big desk for your computer and for all your office equipment.

Thanh: With the emphasis on BIG.

Aaron: Yes. The bigger the better usually. Now, back in San Francisco, I had what was called a Biomorph Desk, which was basically a very big, multi-level desk that had two levels – one for a monitor and for all my computer stuff, and then the other for the keyboard and for a large writing surface. Now, you don’t need that particular brand of desk, there are many alternatives available, and actually a lot of everyday furniture stores, nowadays, will stock multi-level desks, just for that purpose. What you don’t want, you don’t want one of those small desks that fits compactly in the corner, and has just enough room for you to put a monitor and a keyboard on and then nothing else. You basically want a large surface, because if you want to work productively, you have to be able to type, you have to be able to write, you have to be able to put things on your desk, and have documents that you’re going to be able to refer to.

Thanh: Yeah, back in Amsterdam where I grew up and in, uh, in LA, I used to have a, like a corner setup. What I really liked was that it was a ninety-degrees shape, so just imagine like a ninety-degree angle, and if you put your desk in one place, then you have the other side of the ninety-degree angle to do all the other stuff that you need to do, so, a lot of times I would have my laptop and monitor on one desk, and on the other side of the desk, I would have all my printers and some space to do some writing, so everything was very easy to grab and everything was within reach, because I could easily switch between what I was doing, and I could easily get things done because everything was within reach. I know one of my friends he used to have a U-desk shape – U, like in the letter U. So, you kind of like, walk into your desk and then everything around you within one hundred and eighty degrees, is within reach. Because you can just like turn around and everything, is like, within arms’ length. So that was a really cool setup too. But figure out what works for you, what you prefer – the only downside I think of a U-desk is that you don’t have a lot of space for moving, so if you like moving, moving your chair or standing up or things like that, then a U-desk is probably not the best thing to get. But if you like to have everything within reach, within, a uh, one hundred and eighty degree angle, then a U-desk is definitely a good way to go.

Aaron: Yeah, something else to consider with your desk is, try to get one that has adjustable height. So you alternate between working sitting down and working standing up. Now, I guess to some people, it sounds kind of weird to work standing up, but you’ll be surprised how much more productive you are, especially when you’re forced to stand at your desk and work, you tend to get things done a lot more quickly and you tend to procrastinate a lot less. Not to mention that ergonomically, it’s actually a lot better for you as well.

Thanh: Yeah I haven’t tried that myself, but I definitely want to, next time when I’m situated somewhere for a longer period of time, try that out.

Aaron: Yeah.

Thanh: OK, so let’s talk about gears, electronic gears and nice things to have.

Aaron: The first I would say is a digital camera. Now, the digital camera has kind of become a bit redundant, because, you know, everyone has smart phones with high resolution, or rather, high megapixel cameras built-in. What I used to do was carry a digital camera around to use basically as a portable photocopier – to take images of, of documents, of presentation slides. Nowadays, I just use my iPhone camera for that. The second piece of gear, is a Flip Cam, which is basically a very small, very portable, video camera, that takes, what is it… 720p, high definition video, so you can use that wherever you go. In terms of video camera technology, the smartphone hasn’t quite caught up with the rest of the mainstream electronic gear year, so having a video camera like a Flip Cam is still pretty useful.

Thanh: But I’m going to predict within a couple of years, it’s going to be obsolete too, like the digital camera.

Digicam and Flipcam

Flipcam and Digicam.

Aaron: Yeah. Now another thing that’s very useful to have is an old-fashioned dictaphone.

Thanh: Damn… that’s old-school.

Aaron: Yeah. So in the corporate world, dictaphones are mostly used by lawyers, when dictating, obviously, but you can use them for more than that. So, you can use them for recording content, to recording interviews, to just, basically jotting down random thoughts and ideas.

Thanh: Especially when you have meetings, those are things that you always want to record and review later, especially nowadays with most smartphones you can have a recording take place on your phone, and surprise or not, we’re actually doing one of the iPhone right now.

Aaron: Yeah, I mean there is an advantage to having a full-blown, fully-featured dictaphone – editing, and going back and forward, is pretty much built-in to the dictaphone. And the file size of the recording is a lot smaller than say on a smartphone. That being said, give it probably six to twelve months and the recording applications on a smartphone will probably catch up with all the functionality of a full-blown dictaphone.


Old school recording. Still works.

Thanh: Now another thing that’s nice to have or, in some cases even mandatory is external hard drives. Because, what you always want to be doing is, back[ing] up your data. I always hate seeing it, when people don’t back up their computers or their laptops or their data, and then one day something crashes and then, poof, everything is gone. And it’s something that you can easily avoid by backing up your data at least once a week.

Aaron: Yeah.

Thanh: Just save your work at least once a week.

Aaron: It’s just something you can set up to automatically happen in the background once and it’ll just keep doing it by itself. So, if you have a Mac, just use the built-in backup function with Time Machine, and whenever you plug in your USB hard disk, our computer will automatically start backing up onto the hard disk. If you have a PC, you probably have to schedule it in to run on a daily basis, or a weekly basis, but the same principle applies – whenever you’re at your workspace and your computer’s plugged into your USB hub, just make sure that the backup hard disk is also part of that setup.

So another really good nice-to-have is a big whiteboard, or a large wall-like surface to sketch out ideas on. Now this is one thing that I really miss, because in the corporate world, these whiteboards are found pretty much everywhere. And the ability to map out all ideas visually on a large surface, is invaluable. Now I’ve tried using iPad applications, I’ve tried using large drawing canvases, but… in the end nothing really replaces the draw-and-erase sort-of functionality and feel of a proper whiteboard. I’m not really sure why either.

Thanh: Yeah, I feel the same way. I think even mindmapping on your iPad doesn’t give the same feel or drawing with your fingers on the iPad… it’s just..

Aaron: Yeah….

Thanh: I think…

Aaron: Something about markers.

Thanh: Yeah. And also the freedom that you have, because like iPad real estate is pretty small, and a big-ass whiteboard is so huge that you can just let your creative juices just flow and uh, let things come out.

Aaron: Yeah.

Thanh: And also it’s cooler in a way that you can show your ideas right away to someone else who’s in that room. So if you like, if you have an idea, you can just jot it down right away and everyone can see it, especially if you have a meeting.

Aaron: Yep. Now, another thing that I miss from the office is having a filing cabinet, because, in certain countries, you have a law or a regulation where you have to keep all your business documents for up to seven years. Nowadays, what I actually do is, I’m in the habit of scanning everything and storing it in a database on my computer. Thanh actually has a great article about going paperless with your iPhone and Evernote, which is essentially that process of taking all your documents, scanning them digitally, and keeping them as PDFs on your computer.

Thanh: But we also have an article coming up on how to do that with DevonThink.

Aaron: Very soon. Yeah, so let’s take a look at some of the more manual tools that you should also have available in your workspace. So, post-it notes are insanely useful. Especially if you’re someone who doesn’t use digital task management yet, even though if you’re listening to this you probably have already started. But, post-it notes are just good for jotting down random ideas and keeping them somewhere until you have to time to go through and process all of them into your task manager.

Thanh: Yeah one thing you want to keep in mind is, if you use post-it notes and you plug them onto your monitor, make sure you clean up your post-it notes at the end of the day, so that you’re always sure that you have the latest things on there, because you know, I used to work in a big office environment, and I would always see post-it notes on monitors that were from, dated maybe two months ago and had nothing to do with their workflow. So, you know, try to avoid those as much as you can, so by the end of the day, just try to clean it up – this will avoid many distractions and real estate too.

Aaron: Yeah. The other thing I like to have is a moleskine notebook or any other kind of notebook also works. It’s just something about the feeling of putting pen to paper for brainstorming and jotting down certain ideas. You know, I’ve tried using a stylus with a tablet – it just doesn’t quite have the same feel to it for some reason. There’s just something to being able to switch between writing down something, to sketching a small diagram or a small flowchart, and then going back to writing that you just can’t replicate on a digital device as of yet.

Moleskine Notebook

Moleskine Notebook.

Thanh: Another thing you want to have is paperclips, envelopes, pens and highlighters than you use on a regular basis. And make sure you have plenty of paper around you where you can jot down notes, in case you don’t use a moleskine.

Aaron: Yep. OK, now we’re going to talk a bit about software, and obviously we could go on and on and on and on for another couple of hours about software and how great it is and what it does for your productivity, but let’s stick to the essentials here. So, the first thing that you need, is some sort of music player. So whether that’s Spotify if you’re lucky enough to live in Europe, Pandora if you live in the US, or iTunes if you live anywhere else. You need some sort of music player. So what you want to do, is have different playlists for different work modes. So, at a minimum, we would suggest having something with lyrics for doing tasks where you don’t have to concentrate too much, something without lyrics for when you need to “get in the zone” and do work that requires you to concentrate. And then, a chill-out playlist of either classical music or I guess, electronic chill-out music, just for easy listening or for when you need something different.

Thanh: Yeah and if you get bored of your music pretty fast, unlike some people we know, you uh, you can always try to make sure that you have like a task, say every Sunday or every weekend, where you update your playlist – you always try to find new songs. That’s why we love Pandora, because if you let Pandora play along enough, you’ll discover many new artists, many new songs and related songs, and you can always update your playlist. So if you get bored really fast of your music, try to update your playlist at least once a week, so that you’ll always have updated music on your playlist so you don’t get bored, because if you get bored, then getting work done gets a lot harder.

Aaron: Yeah. The other thing we’d recommend having is a software Pomodoro Timer of sorts. Thanh, do you just want to give us a quick overview of the Pomodoro Technique and how the timer plays into that?

Thanh: Especially for people who have short attention spans, what we recommend is for you to apply the Pomodoro Technique. So what this means is you work in short cycles of twenty five minutes, and after each cycle of twenty five minutes you take a five minute break. So, in those twenty five minutes, all you do is work on that task you set yourself to do. And after twenty five minutes, you take a five minute break, and each four cycles, meaning two hours, you take a thirty minute break, get something to eat, you know, get something to drink, and then after thirty minutes of break time, you go back to work. Now, in order to keep yourself in check, you want to get yourself a timer. Now, you have physical timers, like digital ones, or you can get a software timer you can install on your computer. So if you check out the Pomodoro Technique article, you’ll find plenty of software for that.

Aaron: Yep, OK, let’s talk about some more general principles for organizing your workplace.

Thanh: If you work in an office environment, make sure that the office you have, is comfortable for you, but not-so-comfortable for other people. And the reason I say this is because a big part of distractions and interruptions within an office environment is because of other people. If other people can come into your office, and interrupt you, then, you know, that kind of kills your workflow. And once you start working, you’re like in the flow, in the zone, then the last thing you want is for someone to interrupt you. So make sure that you make your office comfortable for you, but not-so-comfortable for other people. The way to do that, is for example having one chair in there. And that chair is only for you. Another thing you can do is, if you have a door, make sure you close it, and you know, you can put a label on the door that says “Do Not Disturb” or [something]. Now I know some people they work in cubicles so it’s very hard to do something like that. In that case, that’s when the earphones are more likely to help you.

Aaron: Yeah, definitely. Um, having earphones in for some reason just signals to other people “please do not disturb me”, and I guess, most people are afraid to interrupt someone wearing earphones while they’re working.

So we already talked about separating your workspace from your living space, and then we briefly mentioned also that if you’re going to have a separate workspace, you want to have everything that you need within arm’s reach. All your tools should be around you, your printer, your stationery, your scanner, your computer obviously. You don’t want to have to walk around to get access to these things.

So let’s talk about some next actions for everyone listening. So if we start with the barebones of having a laptop and some earphones, from there, you can start to construct your ideal setup. So what you want to do, is you want to think about all the things that you possibly need to make your workspace more efficient and more productive. Now one way to go about this, is to come up with three to four different configurations for different workspace scenarios. For example, if I’m going to go work remotely from a Starbucks or from a cafe, I know that at the bare minimum I’ll need my laptop, my smartphone, my earphones and a power adapter. If I’m at home, I want to have my setup with USB hubs and hard disks and a printer already plugged in and ready to use.

Thanh: Now, as a bonus, we’re going to add a couple of images to this post, on examples of good setups, so you can look at what looks good and that you can copy. We’re also going to include examples of workspaces that are not-that-good, so you know what not to do.

Aaron: Yep. So, this has been a podcast from, about essential tools for a productive workspace environment.

Good Workspace Setups

Nice and big spacious desk with everything within reach.

Nice and big spacious desk with everything within reach.

Photo by Daniel Spillere Andrade.

The color scheme is great, but also the office environment is very spacious.

The color scheme is great, but also the office environment is very spacious.

Photo by VincentVega77.

A compact desk but with everything needed within arms length.

A compact desk but with everything needed within arms length.

Photo by Eduardo Silva Velho | Graphic Designer.

Bad Workspace Setups

A not so productive workspace.

A not so productive workspace. Except for the foot on the right belonging to AE Thanh.

(Image courtesy of Silver Tusk under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 generic license.)

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Posted by Lois  | August 18, 2013 at 6:28AM | Reply

You refer to the “best isolation earphones”, but don’t mention the brand. Which isolation earphones do you recommend? Thank you.

Posted by Aaron Lynn  | August 24, 2013 at 7:34AM

Audiophiles are probably going to cringe, but I use both Shure isolation earphones and Bose’s QC15 headphones.

Posted by Navid Moazzez  | August 18, 2013 at 5:07AM | Reply

Awesome post with lots of useful tips, thanks for sharing this with us, exactly what I needed!

I have been following Asian Efficiency for a while now, and you guys really deliver, great stuff :)

Keep up the good work!


Posted by Bojan Djordjevic  | November 14, 2011 at 2:25AM | Reply

The last picture could achieve 200% more productivity, if it was a Mac, instead of that sucky Toshiba :)

Posted by Thanh Pham  | November 14, 2011 at 11:43AM

Haha yeah. I can tell you that since then he has indeed switched over to a Macbook Pro.

Posted by Asian Larry  | April 25, 2011 at 11:05PM | Reply

Respect on the post. Love it. Larry says he likes it too.

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