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Organized Desk

Whether you are working in an office or working from home, the environment you are in is either supporting or hurting your productivity — you just may not know it.

You’ve got a (seemingly) endless to-do list, and you want your environment to work for you to help you accomplish your goals in the time that you have.

When your environment is working against you, it makes it more likely that you will need to sacrifice your time to avoid falling behind.

For example, I wrote an article about being productive with a side hustle, and I shared this picture of the desk I was working at when I started my side project:

Brooks Duncan's old desk

Do you think this environment was helping or hurting my productivity?

Was I able to work? Sure, I was able to check items off my to-do list and make some progress.

However, it wasn’t until I gave some thought about the design of my environment and adapted the space to what would work for me that I was able to move the needle, and my business started to take off.

Here was the iteration of my office that allowed me to make progress:

Brooks Office 2.0

The transformation even made it to Lifehacker, which was a big productivity site at the time.

If you’re interested, I changed it over the years, and here is the current setup after a recent home renovation:

Brooks Office 3.0

Brooks Desk

What do you mean by “design your environment”?

When we talk about designing your environment, we’re not strictly talking about what color of paint you are using and what brand of desk you use.

For example, on that Lifehacker article I linked to, this comment always makes me laugh:

When I think about design, I always think about this quote by Steve Jobs:

It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.

You want to think about what you are going to be using your space for, and what activities will have the most significant impact on your goals.

For example, in the second office picture above, my primary function was going paperless. I designed my environment so that I would have quick access to my scanner, my shredder, my “To Scan” and “To File” folders, and my recycling bin.

I set everything up to make that as fast, easy, and friction-free as possible.

With my current office, I am primarily writing, podcasting, recording video, and working with online systems. Everything, including the books I have at arm’s reach, is designed to accomplish that.

Here are some of the things that make up your “environment”:

In his book Atomic Habits, author James Clear (who was on our podcast talking about habits) says:

“Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior.”

Think about the environment where you do the majority of your focus work: how is it shaping your behavior, both positively and negatively?

Whether you feel that your environment is holding you back or whether you want it to take you to the next level, we have 5 ways for you to design your environment so you can be more efficient and effective.

1. Boost Productivity By Designing Your Workspace

Human beings are amazing at getting work done in almost any circumstance (as you’ve seen from my “before” picture.)

However, you will do your best work if you are comfortable, in a position that maintains good posture, and have a workspace designed with your needs in mind.

For example, when I created the latest iteration of my office, I invested in a sit-stand desk (the Jarvis from Fully). I made sure to get a motorized desk with a memory function. My old desk from Ikea actually could be converted to standing, but there were two problems:

  1. I am a bit on the tall side, and it didn’t quiiiiiiite go high enough to be comfortable and ergonomic
  2. It wasn’t motorized, so to raise and lower it, I needed an Allen key and needed a second person (or to clear my desk) to adjust it. Can you guess how many times I converted it back and forth? (If you guessed zero, you are correct.)

Now, I can adjust my desk on the fly. When I podcast or record or just need to move, one tap of the button and I am standing. When I want to sit back down, another tap. It has made a huge difference to my energy levels throughout the day.

If you use your laptop and need to be on the move, a Roost Stand or Nexstand (the one I use) is a great solution.

While my office was being renovated, I worked from a co-working space for a month and a half. The Nexstand avoided the need to hunch over in front of the laptop, but it is small and portable enough that I could just throw it in my bag.

What items or locations do you use regularly? They should be easy-to-reach.

Want to avoid having paper piled up all over your desk? Have a designated place for it easily to go.

2. Reduce Physical and Environmental Distractions in Your Workspace

Here’s a question to ask yourself: “What do I really need to get my work done?”

Your environment is not just about your physical space, but mental as well.

It’s hard to stay on track when your attention is divided, and if you reside in chaos or mayhem that can bleed into your work habits.

Professional Organizer Julie Bestry has a book called 57 Secrets for Organizing Your Small Business, and in it, she makes a good point about physical clutter:

“Tangible clutter on and around your desk hides your work priorities under sedimentary-rock-like layers and forces you to cast your glance on low-priority attention-stealers”

If you aren’t sure where to start, here is what author Julie Morgenstern says in her classic book Organizing from the Inside Out:

My philosophy in choosing a starting point is this: Pick the space you either spend the majority of your time in, find the most irritating in terms of clutter, or that’s keeping you from reaching your personal or professional goals.

What part of your workspace will have the most impact when you organize it? Start there, even if it is the ugliest (we have a strategy for making this easier in Tip #5 below.)

Physical clutter is not the only type of distraction. Currently, I am writing this article in what may be the loudest Starbucks on the planet. I’m stuck here once a week due to kids’ activities, and while many people (myself included) find the low dim of cafe helpful for productivity, this place is a little too much of a good thing.

When you can’t shape your environment, sometimes you have to shape your defenses against your environment. In this case, I am working from a loud Starbucks, so these noise-canceling headphones allow me to be focused and productive.

Get rid of what you don’t need

When I set up the original iteration of my office, I had a TV and a sofa. I rarely turned on the TV, and the sofa became a place for me to dump stuff on.

Over time, what I thought would be a comfortable place to read became a source of distraction and clutter. This went away when I sold the sofa and gave away the TV, and I was able to free up space for things that help me get work done.

So to go back to the original question from this tip: what do you really need to get your work done? What is causing you clutter and distraction? What can you do to get rid of the latter?

(If you need help getting organized and knowing what to get rid of, a Professional Organizer can help. Sometimes having a neutral third party is what you need to take action.)

3. Reduce Digital Distraction

Do you use a computer or mobile device to get your work done?

There’s a good chance the answer is yes.

We recorded a podcast called Overcoming Digital Clutter: Strategies for Reducing Stress and Regaining Focus, where we dive into the concept of digital clutter and how it has a real cost and effect on your productivity.

Any amount of time you spend clicking around trying to find and access information on your device is time you could be spending making progress towards your goals. It adds up throughout the year.

How you set up and use your digital workspace is just as important as how you set up your physical workspace.

Here are some things you can do:

4. Eliminate or Create Friction

Friction is a hurdle (sometimes an embarrassingly small hurdle) that stops you from doing something right away.

Here’s an example:

I had a scanner called the ScanSnap iX500, which is a great scanner, but it developed a problem: a little button became sticky over time, so that sometimes when I opened the scanner, it didn’t power up automatically.

The solution was dead simple: when that happened, use a pen to pop the button up, and voila: I could return to being a scanning maniac.

It took two seconds at most to fix, but just knowing I may have to do that, even subconsciously, led me to procrastinate, and my digitizing became a backed-up mess over time.

Given that friction stops us from doing things, why is this tip called “Eliminate or Create Friction”? Why would you want friction?

Friction can have a massive influence on your habits. By making something more challenging to do, even a little bit, it can make it much less likely that you will do it as a habit.

  • So if you want to encourage GOOD habits, REDUCE friction
  • If you want to discourage BAD habits, INCREASE friction

Friction occurs naturally, but you can be intentional with it, and it can be a powerful tool to design your environment.

An example of eliminating friction is by having my “To Scan,” “To File,” recycling, shredding, and books all within arms reach. Everything I need to keep an organized, efficient workspace is right there. I’m decreasing friction to discourage a habit I don’t want (leaving paper piled all over my desk).

An example of creating friction is water. If I wanted to, I could have a big water bottle in my office so that water is readily available. However, I choose not to. I like having to go upstairs to get more water because it forces me to get up and move throughout the day. I’m creating friction to encourage an activity I want (getting up and going up and downstairs through the day).

Another example of being intentional with friction is the concept of Clearing to Neutral. Whenever you finish an activity or you’re done for the day, you reset everything so that you are back to your starting position. That means putting away materials, closing browser tabs and apps, and setting everything up for your “future you.”

5. Schedule a Regular Clutter Clearing Session (And Think About It The Right Way)

For many people, the hard part of decluttering is not putting away things and getting organized. The part that many people struggle with is staying organized.

If that’s you, here’s a suggestion:

Schedule a quick session every week as a form of maintenance. It could be 15 minutes; it could be half an hour — whatever is appropriate for your situation.

Add the schedule to your calendar, so you intentionally block out time to do it.

With continuous maintenance, you will get to reap the benefits of a clutter-free environment.

The concept of scheduling time to declutter might sound like a chore, but I love the mental reframe that Fay Wolf offers in her excellent book New Order: A Decluttering Handbook For Creative Folks (and Everyone Else):

The path to your sweeter life is not actually about maintaining, which is a reflection of what you did yesterday. It’s about forward motion and new practices, which are a reflection of how you want to live today — and tomorrow. There are no pasts to re-create. You’re simply building upon what came before, to keep your present and future self happy and productive.

The time you spend on this will, of course, vary on how much clutter you have, and what stage of the process you are in.

I mentioned earlier that scanner friction caused my paper scanning to back up, but what truly caused me problems was moving to my in-laws’ house for a month and a half while our home renovations were going on. Our organization became a shambles, and when I finally moved back into this new version of my office, I had paper all over the place in all sorts of folders, envelopes, and boxes.

Every time my wife asked me about a document, I’d have to tell her I have no idea where it is, “but it’s in my office somewhere.” Not the correct answer, it turns out.

I knew that I would never have time to sit down and digitize and organize all of it, so I added a recurring task to my task manager called “Do 15-minute scanning catch-up”.

So every morning, before starting my “real” work, I would say “Alexa, set a timer for 15 minutes” and start scanning and organizing. When the alarm went off, I’d stop right away.

It took about three weeks of slowly chipping away at it, but today I finally finished. You have no idea how happy this makes me:

The best part is, at only 15 minutes a day, it had almost zero impact on the rest of my productivity, but now I am organized and can switch to weekly maintenance (or as Fay would say “weekly forward motion”).

Action Steps

Here’s how we recommend you get started to design your environment:

  • Decide what the tools and resources need for you to do your best work, and find a place that they can live so that they are at arm’s reach when needed.
  • Set up a recurring “Clutter Clearing Session” on your calendar and make sure you keep that date with yourself.

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Brooks Duncan

I love taking technical topics and translating them so that they make sense to non-nerds. I'm a Chartered Professional Accountant and have been a software developer and have run software support in very small startups and extremely large public corporations. I strive to be relentlessly helpful in everything that I do. I live in Vancouver, Canada and insert extra u's in many of my words.

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