Advice for Setting up a Home Office – Group Interview

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I recently emailed a number of bloggers asking them for the most important non-intuitive piece of advice for setting up a home office. Here are their responses along with my thoughts. If you find a response that seems especially relevant to you, consider subscribing to the author’s blog rss feed (included below).

I learned this from Tannaz Sassooni, one of my favorite Wise Bread bloggers: Put an old fashioned egg timer on the desk. When I start a long or boring project, I’ll set the timer at 15 minutes, and no matter what happens, I’ll force myself to take a break when the alarm goes off. At first I thought the timer will (a) stress me out or (b) distract me. But it turned out to be a great idea. I often procrastinate because I hated doing long and boring projects. But if I promise myself a 15 minute break no matter what, I’m much more likely to be productive. The gentle ticking of the timer is also a lot of fun. I sometimes pretend I’m a spy trying to break top secret codes from the NSA, while in reality I’m just answering emails from cool bloggers like yourself.

Will Chen from Wise Bread (rss)

This is actually one of the techniques I recommend in the Procrastination Prevention Course–although I haven’t ever tried the NSA spy scenario.

Piece of Advice for Home Office/Workspace: Invest in a comfortable chair. I’ve found that the investment easily pays for itself (unlike many superfluous environment purchases) by allowing you to focus on your work instead of an uncomfortable seat.

Scott H Young from (rss)

Right now at my desk I have a very comfortable chair that took me well over a year to locate. I’ve been very happy with it and it is now over seven years old. Since we travel a lot I’ve found that I can usually adjust to just about any seat. The worst one I had to deal with was a metal folding chair in Mexico that would collapse 2 or 3 times each day.

Firewall your attention. Depending on your sensitivity to interruptions, this could be as simple as closing a door, or as complex as configuring software to keep you from browsing the World Wide Time Sink when you’re supposed to be working.

Bren Connelly from bren : blog (rss)

Firewalling your attention is a good way to put it. Sometimes the things we expect to act as inspiration are actually distractions when we are trying to work.

Get a door you can close. Make sure you can shut yourself off from the daily grind at home. It’s very tempting to work in the livingroom or have your spouse or kids come in every time for some fun or little questions. Make the agreement that when the door is closed, no one is allowed in.

Frank Meeuwsen from What’s The Next Action (rss)

The closed door can help a lot. Sometimes it also helps to put your office in a part of the house that isn’t in the middle of where everyone else is. An office in the basement or somewhere else out of the way can help make you just a little less accessible.

The closed door can also help you make the mental disconnect from being at home that is very important in getting work done. I’ve heard of people who work at home who leave the house and walk around the block to “go to work” and then leave their home office and walk around the block to “go home” at the end of the day.

Let me start by saying non-intuitive to me is different than to many people. Clients hire me because my training and experience in setting up offices is based on knowing what works. So, your question flips around for me to be: what mistake does most people make in setting up their workspace.

My top piece of advice in setting up an office that many people don’t consider is: be sure to take whether you’re right or left handed into account. Your orientation will impact where vital components are situated from your lighting to file location to monitor & keyboard location.

If you have a desk light it should not cast a shadow on your work over your writing hand. Thus, lefties should have a desk light in the upper right corner of their desktop and visa versa for righties. Your keyboard and monitor should be positioned so that you can put paper and pen on your natural writing side. I’ve worked with clients that have to continually reach over their keyboard to write. It’s a slow and uncomfortable position.

Susan Sabo from Productivity Cafe (rss)

This isn’t something I have ever thought about. However in looking at my desk, it looks like I’ve done most of this on accident. Anything I need to grab is on the right hand side of my desk. My lamp is the “wrong” side though. I’m guessing that it hasn’t bothered me because I do so little handwriting and I have other light sources.

I think many people don’t realize how dramatically the way you arrange your office furniture and storage in your home office space affects your productivity. So many home offices I go into have all their furniture up against a wall. They also work facing the wall which is not good for their eyes and can cause eyestrain and headaches if they don’t get up often.

The desks many people use at home today don’t have supply drawers handy, so their supplies end up all over the place and they lose efficiency. They also don’t have file drawers built in. So people buy file cabinets – but don’t place them near their desk so they can use them constantly as they work. Not having handy filing space encourages them to create TO FILE piles and even worse piles all over the floor behind them. Things get lost, damaged, stepped on and more. Don’t even get me started on what I’ve seen pets do to the piles people have on the floor.

The first thing I usually do with people after we get everything picked up and sorted out is rearrange the space. Usually into an L or U shape to create lots of storage and workspace. This way we can create a designated zone for everything they need to do and the supplies they need to do it. Most important is to create a home for all the paper they use regularly. We create homes for action paper, reference paper / files, space to hold binders, and sometimes spaces to hold their piles off the floor. Then we do whatever is necessary to create homes for supplies. We create supply storage using baskets, boxes, or setting up monitor risers.

You can see photos and examples of what I mean in my Office Organizing photo gallery at:

Ariane Benefit from Neat & Simple Living (rss)

I’ve have my two desks setup as an L shape although I’ve considered going to a single desk since I think everything would fit. Ariane’s before and after pictures are pretty interesting to look at.

Make it your own. By this I mean: (a) set up your space for how look like to work, e.g., minimalist, uber-organized, or even creative-chaotic; (b) do what you can to make it a space where you *want* to be; and (c) most importantly, make it a space where no one else goes – you can’t be productive if you’re constantly interrupted by others.

GTD Wannabe from GTD Wannabe (rss)

Good advice. I once had a friend who went to an interview and came back very excited. He said that they had a very lenient policy with how you setup/decorated your office space–even to the point that if you wanted to bring in sand for your floor to make it feel like a beach that was fine. While this might be a bit extreme, (and I’m sure the sand would have a negative effect on computer equipment) it is good to think about what works for you. Just because someone else is super organized doesn’t mean that is the best for your working style. I’m not suggesting that you try to be disorganized, but some people actually work better with what looks like a small amount of chaos.

Begin forming diligent work habits from Day 1: if you allow yourself to lay on the couch and watch TV instead of working, this will become
your habit. Instead, develop a routine that will find a balance between getting the work done and enjoying your home office. That routine might include:

  • Showering and dressing before you work (you’re more productive that way).
  • Making a list of the 3 things you want to accomplish today.
  • Starting on the first thing on that list before you check email.
  • When you finish a task on your list, reward yourself with something fun.
  • Only check email twice a day.

Your individual routine will vary depending on your style and needs, but the key is to have a routine and make it a habit.

Leo Babauta from Zen Habits (rss)

This is great advice for anyone working from home. You have to approach it like a “real” job. If you wouldn’t wear your pajamas to work, you probably shouldn’t wear them to work in your home office.

Checking email twice a day can be a very big time saver for some people. It doesn’t work for me personally because most of the work I do for clients is over email. However I have learned to stop checking email when it is a distraction. For example, if I’m writing a letter and get stuck on how to word something, my tendency is to jump over and check my email. This isn’t helpful and I training myself to stop it.

Separate it from the rest of your life – This advice works two ways:

  1. It’s difficult to be productive if you’re in the middle of everything else going on at home, the vacuuming, the kids playing, etc. Make sure you can isolate yourself from anything else going on at home.
  2. When it’s time to take a break from work, don’t have it sitting where you can see it. You will be distracted by the thought of uncompleted work. If your home office space needs to do double duty, have some way of closing off your work when you are done for the day.

Ian McKenzie from Ian’s Messy Desk (rss)

For a lot of people the biggest struggle in working at home is being able to switch off work mode and switch on home mode. Shutting down your computer can be one way to literally turn off work mode when you can’t physically shut off your work space.

How many drawers and shelves do you REALLY need? If you plan to have places to stick stuff, you will accumulate even more stuff to put there. But if you plan a spartan space with few hiding/sticking places, you will have to think twice about all those papers and doodads that come into your office. My suggestion: one pencil-type drawer and a place for some files.

Andrew Flusche from Legal Andrew (rss)

This is a very interesting suggestion. Obviously you need to have adequate storage space, but too much storage can encourage bad habits. I’m not sure I could get by with one pencil drawer and a place for files. That wouldn’t give me any place to store spare batteries, extra cables, backup cell phone, broken ipod speaker, my old wallet, random extension cords, boxes from items I no longer have, money from foreign countries, a voip adapter with no power cable, a cool metal box that I found, 5 rocks (???), and an old laptop. Hm… Maybe I do need to cut down on my storage space. :) Very good suggestion.


  1. James Marwood says

    Having struggled to be productive in the past when working from home I found the biggest help for me was, aside from working in a GTD manner, was setting aside an area of my desk as ‘work’ space. I have my personal mac, my work laptop and my personal desktop PC all set up with their own specific areas. Only the mac (my GTD tool) and the work laptop get touched in work hours. The desktop PC (Primarily a gaming PC) gets left alone until work is over.

  2. says

    I particularly like Ariane’s comments. It’s important to have enough storage space and to have your most used items close by. A well-planned home office arrangement can really maximize use of space. It’s amazing what one extra return table, a few shelves and a file holder can do.

  3. says

    A key theme here seems to be 1) maximize focus, and 2) minimize distractions.

    These goals manifest themselves in office set-up, desktop clutter, multi-functional requirements, etc. Be intentional about what you put (and intentionally do NOT put) in your office, and on your desk. Give yourself the best possible chance to be productive and successful.

  4. says

    Make it your own, comfortable chair, and firewall your attention are positively huge!

    I think maintaining a similar schedule and maintaining a lean information diet also helps a great deal.

  5. Ninian Yule says

    This is desperate…you’re all kidding, right?? Non-intuitive advice: get a comfortable chair????!!!

    You people need your heads examining…

  6. says

    Great stuff. In 19 years of working from home and writing about home officing, I’ve learned one thing: Organization is a dynamic work in progress. From buying lumber and building out my closet to better store goods and get them off the floor (and buying a slightly blemished file cabinet on the cheap – which, ironically, I don’t really need any longer as my office continues toward paperless), to building a large desk with just enough drawers and cabinets to man-handle the detritus of the office, I’ve basically done what your contributors have suggested: make it my own. This also means it’s a place I want to go to work on Monday mornings – and because it has a door that closes (the TRUE power tool of any home office), it’s a place I don’t mind leaving Friday afternoon. One last must-have feature for me: Two big windows – lots of natural light, a view of the neighborhood, and a watchful eye on my kids at play (which might even draw me out for a little playtime myself…).

  7. says

    Such useful and interesting tips, in particular Ariane’s office reorganisation.

    We’re moving house very shortly, and when we enter the new house, we’ll have the luxury of one room, which will be a home office for both my husband and I. I’ll keep a few of the ideas here in my back pocket for that stage.

    We’ve already established a layout that ensures neither of us get screen glare from the window, I’ll be nearer the filing shelves due to my regular use of them, and all noisy electronics (ie. hard drives with fans & servers) will be in the storage room next door to give is a quiet, distraction-free room.

    Can’t wait to move in!

  8. says

    Really great piece. One of my plans for 2008 is to get my home office organized – these are excellent resources. Thank you so much for putting these together and getting these snippets of advice from the pros!!

  9. says

    Absolutely fantastic. When I initially started working from home, i was clueless and found it tough to adjust!

    But gradually i adjusted – the closed door was one of the first i implemented. One tip: ensure you have all relevant office connectivity, telephone policies and issues sorted out before starting your work from home adventure!

  10. says

    I generally work from nine to five and yes those regular breaks are important. These are no different to when you worked in the office and took a break with your mate. I guess the only thing I have not mastered is the easy access to the pantry and fridge.

  11. says

    For me personally, it is getting dressed as if you are off to the office. It assists me to have a work place mindset and if I am called our to a meeting unexpectedly I am ready. Also maintain your office space for your work hours. I have two computers, one for home entertainment and one purely for my work. I am one fortunate and happy home office worker.

  12. says

    I think it is increasingly important to take a break at least every hour when working with computers. I find I am at my computer at a minimum of 12 hours each day. This is not healthy and must be balanced with other activities.

  13. says

    If you sometimes shuffle paper from one place to another without dealing with it go and buy a bingo marker.

    Each time you pick up a piece of paper put a spot on it with your marker. After a few day/weeks/months you will note that there are pieces of paper on your desk that you have not dealt with that are cover in coloured spots.

    You set the limit (mine is 3 spot). If you’ve not dealt with it when you get to your limit throw it away because you are never going to do anything with it!

  14. says

    Hi Mark,
    It was a great idea to have a group interview to gather advice for office design and refurbishment for a home office. There were many interesting reads and ideas that I found useful as I often think about how to go about my office interior design myself. Now that I’ve read about how other people go about doing it, it will definitely help as I plan for my own office refurbishment.


  1. […] This is great advice for anyone working from home. You have to approach it like a “real” job. If you wouldn’t wear your pajamas to work, you probably shouldn’t wear them to work in your home office. Checking email twice a day can be a very big time saver for some people. It doesn’t work for me personally because most of the work I do for clients is over email. However I have learned to stop checking email when it is a distraction. (via productivity 501) […]

  2. […] Setting up a home office The closed door can help a lot. Sometimes it also helps to put your office in a part of the house that isn’t in the middle of where everyone else is. An office in the basement or somewhere else out of the way can help make you just a little less accessible. […]

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