When my messy home office got so cluttered I couldn’t get anything done in it, it was time to take action—and I turned to Lifehacker for advice. Disorganisation leads to lack of free time, lack of free time leads to believing you’ll never be able to get it all under control again, and that is how I ended up as a terribly scattered person in a wretchedly cluttered office. The responsibilities of adulthood, marriage, and parenthood forced me to admit the haphazard approach to life that coloured my college years wasn’t going to cut it anymore. In the following makeover confessional, check out the tips and tricks I gleaned from Lifehacker to transform my mountain of clutter into fuel for a productivity machine.
The first thing I had to do before I so much as cleared off my cluttered desk was admit that what I had previously called getting organised was actually just cleaning. When the organisation bug would bite, I’d tear apart my office and spend a whole weekend thinking “This is it! I’m getting organised!” only to find that the next week led to a big pile of mess. I had no system for dealing with anything: paperwork, incoming projects, digital files, not a thing. I had to sit down and adopt the mindset of an unclutterer. All the calendars, planners, and containers didn’t help one bit until I took control of my environment.
Once I had committed myself to not just cleaning my space but to taking control of it and directing how things would be coming in and out of my office, I felt comfortable taking absolutely everything out. By starting with an empty room I had a blank slate to lay out my office in a more sensible manner. My goal was to let only the most critical and functional things back into my workspace.
The secondary desk—which had previously served as a clutter landing pad—became my primary and only desk. My previous corner computer desk had little room for anything besides the computer, certainly not enough room to work effectively. Taking a cue from the long respected door-as-desk school, my desk was simply a big white door on top of two file cabinets.
The poor file cabinets had been little more than dumpsters. When I was overwhelmed by the mess on my desk, I’d often just round up the pile and dump it in one of the file drawers to sort them at some later date. When I emptied the office to start from scratch, I emptied the file cabinets too. I had read tons of recommendations for label makers and ended up with two: a Dymo handheld one for using around the house and a Brother attached to the computer via USB. Armed with a label maker, I did my own version of an extreme file cabinet makeover. I sorted and filed all the paperwork I had gathered up when I took apart the office. I recycled or shredded all the waste according to this paper shredding guide. Two of the drawers now house neatly organised files, and the other two drawers split duty storing frequently used office supplies and blank media.
As any geek knows, placing the desk is only a fraction of the effort behind setting up a computer workspace. I had to wire everything together and keep it from looking like a ball of twine in the process. Impressed with Adam’s wire wrangling, I attached a wire cord management rack to the bottom of the desk and used it to keep cabling off the floor. Displeased with how much space the computer took up sitting on my previous desk, I moved the tower under the desk and tucked it out of the way behind the file cabinet. Behind the file cabinet I hooked up an APC battery power supply, so I can work through power interruptions. The only other thing on the floor is my sound system’s sub woofer and a wire waste basket.
At this point I already had the toolbox out and it didn’t seem like much of a leap to extend my office renovation to my home network. At the time my Xbox Media Center and office computer were suffering on the wireless spectrum. Armed with a spool cable and tools, I wired my own home network which did wonders for the video streaming from the office to the Xbox. By repurposing some 1950s era steel stacking letter trays as a DIY network rack I extended the cable management from beneath the desk all the way to my modest network node in the basement.
I attacked the dark and claustrophobic feeling of the office on two fronts. To increase the sense of space and decrease the feeling that I was staring at a wall, I hung a mirror the length of my workspace, over my desk which created a welcome illusion of additional space and light. It is also more comfortable to be able to see what is behind you instead of feeling trapped against the wall.
Prior to the makeover I had never installed proper window coverings. I had simply taken big utility clips and thrown a backdrop cloth over the windows. Because it was such a hassle to take down, I simply worked in an office with no natural light. I found a fantastic US$15 tension wire curtain rod at Ikea, which was long enough to cover both windows and the glass doors. Gina’s tension wire photo wall design can be easily modified to hold up curtains as a DIY version of the Ikea model. I punched grommets in a dark cloth I had handy and strung the tension wire through grommets to create a light weight curtain that was dark enough to dim the room properly when I was editing photos.
The original office, despite the appearance of having every piece of clutter and hardware under the sun, had no functional task lighting. The office’s only light was low watt decorative wall sconces. They were bright enough to work under without a flashlight, but so dim that my eyes were frequently strained. I wanted to set up bias lighting to relieve the strain, but putting the mirror behind the desk required I modify the suggestion to put a compact fluorescent directly behind the monitor.
Inspired by Gina’s father-in-law’s use of tube lighting in his pantry, I attached a length of LED tube Christmas lights to the underside of the desk. The LED lights simultaneously provide bias lighting, keyboard illumination, and nice diffuse ambient light all from a single source. For hand writing and general tasks at the desk, lighting is provided by a simple chrome halogen desk lamp.
As the upgraded lighting demonstrates, the new desk arrangement places more emphasis on health and ergonomics. The cramped desk and poor layout of the old office had been turning me into the Hunchback of Coder Dame. The keyboard now sits on an adjustable slide out tray, acquired for its extra long width. Along with the keyboard, there is a trackball mouse and a control module for the sound system. Except for the monitors and tower power buttons, all physical input to the computer happens within the 18-inch span of the keyboard tray.
Placing the tower out of immediate reach only had one downside: no easy access to the front USB ports I use frequently. So, on the left hand side of the keyboard, I mounted a mini laptop-style USB hub to the bottom of the desk with mounting tape. Now, frequent memory card swapping and flash drive syncing is no sweat.
In the old office, every peripheral and gadget in need of charging ended up piled on the desk or balanced precariously on top of the computer tower. I took the idea of the DIY charging station to another level by using a wire shelf to hold and organize the chargers for my iPod, DSLRs, camcorder, phone, as well as my printer, scanner, external DVD burner, external hard drive, label makers, and two small plastic organiser drawers for miscellaneous office supplies and printer paper. The open design of the wire shelving makes it super easy to place cords right where I want them and the large surface area of the top shelf makes a great landing strip. At the end of the day I can set my attache beside the station, and small things like phone and keys atop it.
To bridge the distance between the tower and the charging station I used a 10 foot USB extension. I took a slightly less involved approach to hiding cables in the baseboards and opted to use some of the left over clips from the LED Christmas lights to secure the white USB extension cable against the bottom of the white window frame. The cord is nearly invisible.
My second monitor is one of my favourite additions to the made-over workspace. I acquired both the monitor and a spare video card from the estate of my grandfather. A lifelong engineer and avid computer hobbyist who taught me how to program, it was only fitting to take the spare parts from his lab and incorporate them into my new space. I cannot say enough good things about how much using dual monitors has boosted my productivity.
Finally, it isn’t truly yours until you personalise your workspace. Since 1994—for reasons I can’t entirely recall—a first edition Spawn action figure has sat on my computer, keeping the digital gremlins at bay. Since 2006, my first Father’s Day gift sits in the window and reminds me what I’m working so hard for. Finally, the only kind of clutter I can stand, the cute little things my daughter brings to the office as presents, like dozens of Curious George stickers.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is how through an extreme office makeover, I went from sitting around reading about everyone’s awesomely organised and zen offices, to finally having one of my own complete with swanky cord basket.