If you work from home, theoretically you should be able to set up the ideal office. But that is often not how it works. There may be limited space, competition for space, uninspiring space, or barely-functional space. For this reason, I think it’s important to be able to condense your workspace needs down to the essentials, so that no matter where you have to work, you can get it done.
If you have a huge amount of space to work with, you end up with a different problem. You tend to fill it with things that are not essential. Why spend hours organizing a beautiful workspace with tons of stuff you will barely touch, or worse, be distracted by? Concentrate on functionality. Sure, it should look appealing and organized, but your focus should be on creating a space that will help you accomplish your goals. If you think you need a huge amount of space for all your stuff, it might be time to think about going paperless (link) or at least decide what can be stored in a closet.
The first thing you need to do is figure out what your essentials are. I’m a writer, so I don’t need a lot of tools. Here’s my list of essentials:
- Smooth work surface
- Comfortable chair with wheels
- Bulletin board to keep schedules in view
- Tool holder with pens and scissors
- 3 notebooks (bullet journal, journal for notes and ideas, notebook for my novel)
- Phone & iPad chargers
That’s it. That is all I need to get my work done. I recommend creating your own list of essentials. If you want, create a secondary list of things that would be nice to have, but that aren’t absolutely necessary. Go over your work day in your mind and think about the tools that you are using the most.
Office Location & Layout
Once you know what you need for your space, you need to figure out where to put your office and the best way to lay out your space. Think about potential sources of noise and distraction. Some people can work through a tornado. I am not one of those people, so I try and eliminate sources of noise as much as I can. It’s ideal if you’ve got a room where you can close the door. If that’s not an option, try and pick a spot in your home that gets the least amount of foot traffic and noise.
Your workspace should be inviting and comfortable, but also encourage you to stay focused on work. Ideally, you don’t want to be facing a blank wall. If a blank wall is your only option, put up some attractive pictures or something with visual interest. I would only put a bulletin board or white board there if my desk was relatively shallow.We are in a very small apartment through July, so we didn’t have too many options when laying out our workspace. Our living room needed to house three desks and one bookshelf (that we use for shoes near the front door). There’s no room for a dedicated office. I chose to put my desk in a corner opposite the front door, facing the window. To my immediate right, we hung my cheap used bulletin board, which I covered with fabric to match my desk. This way, when I turn my head to the right, my weekly schedule and blog editorial calendar are at eye level.
You want to have the things you use most often within arms reach. If you have files you are using all the time, then put a file holder right on your desk top. I love this office in a box idea on the Everything Etsy blog. Because I have almost no paper, I put my scanner where I would normally put my files.
If you have a lot of office supplies, keep the ones you use the most on your desk and put the rest in one drawer. I don’t have any drawers, so I’ve got one pencil cup and one cup for push pins. I have a stapler, but I’ve only used it to staple the fabric to my bulletin board, so if I had a drawer, it would go in there. If you reference a dictionary or other books a lot, keep those on your desktop.
Basically, unless you are reaching for it every day, keep it off your desktop. There are a couple of exceptions to this, which I will talk about later.
Plan Your Space to Give Yourself Breaks
If you use your stapler several times in an hour, you will want that on your desk. But there are some tools that you might want to keep out of arm’s reach for the sole reason that you need to get up and move around at least once every half hour. It is easy to become engrossed in a particular task and not get out of your chair for an hour or two. This is a really bad idea. I put my printer out of reach of my desk, because I don’t use it that often, but when I do, I have an excuse to get up. Letting my dog outside is another good excuse for me to get up and move around. Whenever I get up for one thing, then I try to walk around and do a couple other tasks, like getting a drink of water or straightening up a bit in another room. I try not to go back to my desk for at least five minutes.
If you have a really hard time with giving yourself breaks, you can download a timer that will interrupt your work and tell you it’s time to get up. I found this a little annoying when I was in the middle of a thought, but it was effective. Even if you decide not to continue using it, it will help you get into the habit of taking frequent breaks. This article has some good suggestions for timers for Mac. Here are some similar apps for Windows. Out of every 30 minutes, you should be out of your chair for at least five minutes. A recent study found that exercising 30 to 60 minutes per day is not enough to counteract the deadly effects of a sedentary lifestyle. If you can set up a standing desk, that is one of the best ways to counteract this problem.
Leave an Open Space for Writing
I always keep a spot to the left of my computer free for writing in my notebooks or filling out paperwork, etc. It’s important to have an open area to work in when you are not using your computer. You don’t want to have to rearrange your desk every time you want to write something down. Don’t fill every bit of your work surface. If you have that many essential items, you may need a larger desk.
Personal & Non-Essential Items
It’s a good idea to keep personal items to a minimum, especially when you’re working at home and are already surrounded by your own things. Your desk should be where you focus on work, so you don’t want a lot of extraneous stuff that may distract you. That being said, it’s nice to have a couple items within view that will feed positive feelings or creativity. A family photo is a common choice. I use a cigar box as one of my bookends on my desk. It has my bookbinding tools in it, which clearly aren’t essential to my work as a writer, but it looks nice and it reminds me of the fun I have when I am binding. I also have three little books I made on my desk, just because I think they look nice. Think about what you can keep on your desk that won’t distract you, but that will make you happy whenever you look at it.
Have a Separate Area for Incoming Mail and Other Items
If you want to keep your desk organized, don’t throw the day’s mail on it. It’s easy for things to start piling up and get lost. A lot of people have a small table near the front door with a recycling bin nearby. A shredder is a good idea too. If you have time when you walk in the door, deal with the mail right away. If not, put it in a designated area and sort it as soon as you can. Try and do this every day so it doesn’t turn into a bigger job. Once the mail is sorted, then anything that must be dealt with can make its way to your desk. But keep the junk mail and anything unimportant off your desk. As the amount of snail mail we receive dwindles and things like online billing replace it, sorting the mail may eventually mean just throwing it all in the recycling bin.
Where to Focus Your Home Office Budget
Probably the most important item in your office in terms of comfort is your chair. Go to a couple stores and try different chairs. Sit at a desk in them if you can. Find out what feels most comfortable for you and what will encourage you to sit up straight. Pay attention to whether or not you want arms on your chair. I prefer a chair with wheels as it is easier to move away from the desk and is also less likely to scratch the floor. An adjustable height chair is probably a good idea so you can make sure your work area is set up ergonomically. I was able to find a used office chair that is really nice, as I didn’t want to spend $75-150 on a new chair since it won’t be coming with us when we move. But if you expect to have your office chair for a long time, then don’t skimp.
As long as your work surface is sturdy and the right size, I don’t think it’s necessary to buy a huge, expensive desk. I found a red and white table that I love for $30 at Ikea. I’m tall, so I like using a table as a desk so I won’t bash my knees on drawers or anything. If you need to have drawers, a rolling cart used in conjunction with a table can be an economical alternative to buying a large wooden or metal desk.
You may need a riser for your monitor so it’s at the correct height. Anything to make your workspace more ergonomic is probably worth it. If you work on your laptop, you may want to get a separate monitor and keyboard for it so you can work more comfortably.
Even if you have a big budget for a home office, spend more time focusing on what you need rather than on spending your entire budget. I always budget well under what I can afford because I’d rather continue to invest that money. I spent $55 on the desk, chair, and bulletin board in my current work space, which I love. I wanted to complement the red table legs, so I bought some red fabric on sale for about $2 for the bulletin board, bought the red mug for my pens for 25 cents at a thrift shop, and my big ticket item was the red mouse pad for around $4. I think the red heart cup for my push pins was $1. The red stapler was free. I stayed away from drawers or shelves because it’s too easy to fill them with unnecessary stuff.
In summary, if you are trying to lead the simple life and want your home office to match that ethos, focus on what essential tools you need to get your work done. If you stay as close as possible to the confines of those essentials, it allows you to concentrate on the work rather than the environment. I’d love to hear any tips you have for organizing a small office space. Feel free to also share your list of essentials in the comments.
This post contains affiliate links.