Marie Kondo has been cleaning up with her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and her Netflix series, where she encourages people to declutter their homes and find contentment through tidying up. But what about your workspace—does it spark joy?
Our physical workspaces, computer setups, mobile setups, and even our virtual workspaces have a major impact on our efficiency and productivity. We’re not talking about a cluttered desk or needing to tidy your files (though maybe you do), but we are talking about a work setup that gives you joy and helps you get your work done.
A nest of cables might be unsightly and a monitor on the fritz is annoying, but both are also hampering your work. Same thing with a chair that causes back pain or a computer desktop that’s so cluttered you can’t find your files.
What kind of workspace setup can make you more productive and spark joy?
1. How Is My Physical Desk?
There are endless debates about a clean desk vs. a cluttered workspace, but we’re not interested in that debate. We’re more concerned about the things at your desk that help you get work done.
Sit or Stand?
The biggest question in desks these days is whether you’re going to sit or stand. The most flexible option is to do both with a desk that automatically switches between sitting and standing. But it’s still important to recognize when it’s most helpful to sit or stand.
“When I’m deep in problem-solving mode, I stand, pace a bit, draw on the whiteboard, go back to the desk, etc.” says Tracy Apps. “When my desk is in standing mode, I walk around a lot more—research has shown that this type of moving and pacing increases brain function and problem solving.”
Don’t overlook where you plant yourself.
“I cannot stress enough how much investing in a good, quality, ergonomic chair is worth every penny, tenfold!” says Apps. “With a history of back problems, this chair is one of the only places I can sit for hours and not be in pain.”
Speaking of pain, take ergonomics seriously.
That might mean a standing desk or an expensive chair. It could also mean a keyboard tray or an ergonomic device, such as a mouse or keyboard.
While devices can help, they only do so much. You have to work the right way. So pay attention to your posture and how you’re working. A fancy ergonomic chair doesn’t do much good if you hunch over your keyboard.
Let There Be Light
Get a lamp or two and brighten up your space. Especially if you work at night or have more darkness during the winter, a few lamps can make all the difference.
“Sunlight is important to our brain’s chemistry, so sitting at a desk in an office all day can really take a toll on our mental health,” says Apps. “I truly believe that having a full spectrum light box (one designed for mental health in particular) is a must in our line of work.”
Your workspace should also be fun.
“Make your workspace feel like home,” says Adam Soucie. “I keep a few toys and LEGO minifigures on my desk as a reminder to stay creative and have fun.”
You don’t want to drown your workspace in distractions, but playing can also stimulate creativity. Sometimes it helps just to have something to fiddle with (hence the rise of the fidget toy).
2. How Is My Computer Setup?
A big part of how your desk is working (or not) is your computer. What kind of setup do you have for your computer, and what are some ways you can maximize the effectiveness of that setup?
Desktop vs. Laptop
For a freelancer, your entire business is on your computer. So much of your livelihood is tied up in the files and programs that reside on that hard drive.
Once upon a time, that made using a laptop as a primary device a bit of a risk. If you dropped that laptop while on the go or a clumsy neighbor at the coffee shop spilled their drink—goodbye business. You could spend weeks trying to recover. It made backup hard drives crucial.
But today you can do so much of your computing in the cloud that the device is nearly interchangeable.
Some people use multiple computers and others make a laptop do double duty with the help of an external monitor and a full-size keyboard. Others are even working with a tablet and making do without a laptop.
Now freelancers have more choices and can be less tied to a single machine. It’s all about what works for you.
“I’ve found the external monitor—the extra margin it provides—to actually be invaluable,” says Justin Sainton. “As a developer and business owner, context switching is unavoidable—having the visual space to do so is a massive help.”One study showed that multiple monitors offered a 35% boost in productivity.
“My laptop and two large monitors allow me to spread out everything I need so I can access multiple windows and applications quickly and efficiently,” says Apps.
Though not everyone likes bigger screens. Basecamp’s Jason Fried gave up his 30-inch monitor: “One screen all the time,” he says. “I also like the smaller screen because it forces me to make better use of the space. I found myself getting messy on a 30-inch.”
“I didn’t think I’d ever really need or use an actual physical printer—but having a wireless printer close by to be able to mark up proposals, print out contracts, etc., has actually been really helpful!” says Sainton. “I find myself using hand-written to-do lists, reading through and marking up physical copies of things, etc., more and more. When we’ve digitized nearly everything in our lives, it’s amazing how productive it can feel to actually hold something in your hands.”
A printer/scanner combo can also be incredibly helpful. We like to think we live in a digital world, but there are a lot of times when you need to make a copy.
Mouse & Keyboard
You might think a mouse is a mouse, but there can be a lot of differences, from a minimalist design to a tricked out mouse with multiple programmable buttons. You have to find what works for you.
“The Apple Magic Mouse I had at my last agency was a life-saver because of its ability to read gestures similar to my MacBook Pro’s touchpad,” says Soucie.
Mice and keyboards can be wireless these days, which may be a great way to cut down on cords. But that also means rechargeable batteries, which might not be worth the hassle. Some folks have turned to solar keyboards, which allow you to have the wireless convenience without juggling batteries.
More than just a perk, listening to music can actually make you more productive. 88% of people are more accurate and 81% work faster when listening to music.
“I love having Sonos speakers in my office,” says Sainton. “Music plays a huge part of finding flow when I’m focused on something specific.”
3. How is My Mobile Work Setup?
Freelancers often have to be mobile workers, ready to work on the fly, whether it’s for business meetings, travel, not having a dedicated office, or just getting out of the house.
So can you make your workspace still work when you’re on the go? We’ve talked about the mobile office before, but here are some more tips:
“Unfortunately, I’ve found myself so dependent on my external monitor that I find it hard to travel without it!” says Sainton. “I can get by on just my laptop, but it takes significant time to acclimate to.”
That’s no problem for Tracy Apps, who brings along USB-powered external monitors when she knows she’s going to be doing design work on a longer trip. “While they’re not the highest quality, they at least help my productivity a bit by having that little extra screen real estate,” says Apps.
“I’m a minimalist when I work on the go,” says Soucie. “Other than my charger, I don’t bring anything with me because I can’t guarantee I’ll have room for even a mouse.”
One of the advantages to mobile working is that minimalist mindset can help you focus. You don’t have the distractions of home, the screen is smaller, and there’s often a time limit. It can all work together to make you more focused.
Speaking of minimal, some people are switching to tablets instead of carting around a laptop. Tracy Apps relies on a 12-inch iPad Pro when she knows she won’t be doing design or development work on a trip.
Remember the Basics
Of course working on the go offers other distractions. A good way to cope with them is to be prepared. While a minimalist approach is good, you also need to get work done. That might include having your bag stocked with some basics, such as headphones, aspirin, paper and pencil, wipes (to clean your screen and/or that grimy coffee shop table), and more.
Respect the Location
When you work off site, it’s important to respect where you’re working. Pay attention to the rules and norms and don’t be that person.
- Don’t claim the best tables and hog space: Try to be unobtrusive and use only the space you need. There’s nothing worse than a single person with a laptop usurping a table meant for four.
- Turn the volume off or use headphones: Nobody wants to hear your music, random notifications, or that auto-play video.
- Buy something: If you’re at a coffee shop, buy a beverage or snacks and tip well. Think of it like you’re paying rent.
- Share the power outlet: Be conscious of other people around you and don’t stay plugged in all day if you don’t need to be.
Don’t be the person who claims the big corner table for themselves and nurses a single drip coffee for half the day.
4. How Is My Virtual Workspace?
An important—and often overlooked—part of your workspace is your virtual one. So much of our work is done on computers that how we work is a major part of our effectiveness.
Is your virtual workspace a source of joy or frustration? Here are a few areas where you can make some improvements and find some joy.
We know it’s important to backup your website (may we recommend a WordPress backup plugin?) but you also need to backup your files. Backup works best when it’s automatic, so make sure you have a backup system going. It’s also helpful to have off-site backup, so you might want to look into the cloud.
“After having some issues with computers and backup drives crashing or getting stolen altogether, I typically have my important files automatically synced to a couple places,” says Apps. “For example, I save all my work files into my Dropbox folder directly. I pay for extra space so I can just store everything there.”
Working in the cloud is a new reality that can make you immune to computer loss, theft, or crash. It’s not just a good backup solution, it also makes you less dependent on a single device.
“I don’t save any files outside of my Dropbox folder,” says Apps, “So if my computer ever crashes or I need to send it in for repairs, I don’t have to worry about losing any files because my backups are created automatically, in real time.”
If multiple monitors aren’t an option or you’re stuck on a tiny laptop screen, another option is to create more screen space virtually. You can do this by creating multiple desktops with Spaces on a Mac. If you like having your apps and windows situated just so, but get tired of rearranging things for different tasks, Spaces is for you.
- Set up different desktops for specific tasks: One for managing clients, invoices, and contracts, another for head-down coding, another for email and research.
- Create an off-the-clock desktop to help separate work and play: You can put work out of sight so you’re not tempted when you’re off the clock (and maintain whatever work windows you had open).
- Get some empty space: Switch to a new desktop if you just need some breathing room but don’t want to close or minimize your windows. If you’re one of those people who open dozens and dozens of browser tabs, this can be a way to shunt those tabs off somewhere else so you can explore them later and not have them be an ongoing distraction now.
Icons, Home Screens & Docks
How quickly can you launch the programs and apps you use all the time? Theoretically, the most common programs and apps should be readily available in the dock or on the home screen of your phone or tablet. But in reality, we let those spaces get cluttered and don’t organize them to maximize efficiency.
The result? Three swipes to get to your new app, because that’s where your phone put it and you didn’t bother to change it.
Keep these spaces organized and free of clutter so you can launch apps and programs faster.
One way to speed up your computer use is to learn the keyboard shortcuts. Especially for common tasks where you’re reaching for the mouse, anything that keeps your hands on the keyboard is going to make you more productive. Brainscape calculates that the average user wastes 8 days per year by not taking advantage of keyboard shortcuts. Check out these 60 keyboard shortcuts for Windows, Mac, Gmail, Office, and more.
One of the greatest hindrances to your productivity can be notifications. Alerts pop up on your screen or your phone chimes, pulling you away from what you’re doing.
Notification interruptions are hard to ignore, and they can ruin your focus. Research has shown that switching tasks can make us 40% slower and it takes an average of 23 minutes to recover from an interruption.
“The average worker wastes six weeks a year retrieving misplaced information on office and computer files,” says productivity expert Anne McGurty. “Set up a system for organizing information, and then use it.”
It might be tempting to rely on search features to find your files, but you’re better off keeping things organized. Create folders for each client and then folders for specific projects. For long-term clients, consider creating folders by year to group those projects.
Keeping things organized can make it a lot easier to migrate to the cloud or backup your work.
5. How Do I Figure Out What Works?
All of these tips and ideas are great, but one of the challenges is that it’s different for everybody. Some people like the minimalist approach of just a laptop while others want three sprawling monitors and a device for every situation.
So how do you figure out what kind of workspace setup works for you?
How Do You Work?
First, pay attention to how you work.
“Streamline everything in the way that your brain and process works,” says Apps. “You can Pinterest out your desk ’till you’re blue in the face… but if that doesn’t match up with how your brain is wired, it will do no good.”
If a messy desk drives you nuts and distracts you from your work, you probably need to focus on having a clear workspace.
If a different setup throw you off your game, you probably don’t want to switch between a desktop and a laptop. Find a way to work on a single machine or sync your devices.
If you’re always struggling to print, sign, and return documents, maybe it’s time to find a better solution, whether it’s a printer/scanner combo or virtual signatures.
Identify the Problems
Spend some time paying attention to how you work. Look for problems or bumps in your process. See what kind of things slow you down and interrupt your work.
Sometimes we’re so focused on getting things done (which is a good thing) we don’t realize how our process is messing us up. By paying attention you can identify areas where you need help.
This is important, because it’s easy to get lost down the rabbit hole of fun toys, fancy systems, and shiny software you don’t need. Everybody might be all excited about the latest gadget, but if yours works just fine, it’s OK to ignore it (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it).
It all depends on your goal.
Explore the Options
You don’t want to create problems you don’t have, but sometimes we don’t realize something is a problem and there’s already an easy solution. Learning how other people work can expose some of those blindspots and help us get better.
Ask your colleagues what they like best. Research how other people work.
You might discover some simple tweaks that help you be more focused and effective.
You might not have an issue, but the way someone describes a problem sounds painfully familiar and you realize this could help you too.
And you might learn about some problems that plague other people but don’t bother you. Great, move on.
Trial and Error
It can be frustrating, but sometimes you just have to try it and see what works. Be willing to try different options and see what feels right for you.
Some people need that second monitor. But for others, it’s just an extra distraction displaying email and social media.
Change It Up
Finally, it’s OK to change. The nature of our work changes, technology changes, and we change.
“I also recommend that you remain open to the idea that your organization and setup can change,” says Apps. “I’ve added, removed, and changed almost everything at some point. Sometimes it was due to the nature of my work changing, sometimes it was just that I started feeling what used to work wasn’t working anymore. So I didn’t force it… I adapt my workspace to match.”
Sometimes a change can even reenergize your work.
Finding a Workspace That Works
In today’s world everything moves fast and it can be hard to keep up. Sometimes we cling to the habits and practices we’ve always used, even in the face of change. Rarely do we take time to think about how things are set up and how that impacts our productivity and our joy in work.
So take time to consider your workspaces and make sure they work for you.
For more productivity help, check out our 99 tips for working at home.
For more insights from our experts, check out these interviews: