What is “clear working space” on a desk? Involuntary Clutter Makeover for RandsInRepose.com

Source: RandsInRepose.com’s CAVE ESSENTIALS


I’m still reflecting on RandsInRepose.com’s CAVE ESSENTIALS post. And while I think Rands has the perfect idea about the job of a desk:

“A desk’s job is to build productivity, and for me, it achieves this by first providing an immense amount of clear working space.”

I don’t think Rand’s desk meets his criteria. Why? Because:

  1. Rand’s desk is neither clear
  2. Immense


Here is a close-up of Rand’s desk:

The elements of a desk being “not clear”

Clutter is the STRATEGIC enemy desk productivity.  It is impossible to remove all clutter, but the more you remove, the less brain energy wasted. For example, I think facial pictures are “the queen mother” of all clutter. Why? Because our brains are hardwired to recognize faces. Whenever a face is in front of your eyes, part of your brain is concentrating on an infinite decode loop (“Who is it? Who is it? …).

One of my MBA students heard me say facial pictures are the queen mother of clutter, and moved her daughter’s picture from next to her monitor, to out of her peripheral vision to the left. The pic is still there, she can look at the pic whenever she wants, but she is not burning energy decoding the picture when she’s trying to work. The result:

“I can’t believe how much less tired I feel at my desk.”

  1. Monitors are not on arms that would:
    1. Lift monitors clear of the work surface to allow the work surface to be used … for work!
    2. Allowing monitors to be effectively removed from the desk when one is not being used
    3. or both are not being used
    4. Allowing use of the desk space now taken up by the base of the monitor stands. Rands barely has space to lay down 3 3″x5″ cards, let alone to try to arrange cards to hot-boot a project.
      1. As my go-to hot-boot project methodology is Rough Organizing with 3×5 cards, this is a major defect in my eyes. *Note* Rands probably does not organize with 3×5 cards like I do. To each brain, it’s own organization scheme.
    5. Allow monitors to be precisely aligned/arranged
    6. Prevent the instinctive piling up of clutter on monitor bases
  2. Visible clutter on the desk
    1. What is visible clutter?
      1. Anything not being used to work, that is within the eyesight envelope of the person working.
      2. Take the above picture, and make the 0 degree line perpendicular to the center of each monitor, and then you can construct the full “clutter envelope” of a desk.
      3. I recently had a work desk that had 180 degrees of isolation when I was sitting. Action shot:
      4. Here is the close up of the work surface
      5. Sitting at this desk, the walls of the alcove were just long enough to shield my peripheral vision from any motion. And having all motion and clutter removed from peripheral vision is FANTASTIC!!!
  3. Wires, wires, everywhere.
    1. Can’t tell if Rand’s mouse is wired, but the keyboard looks wired.
    2. I switched to Apple’s Magic Keyboard 2 and Magic Trackpad 2 this summer and both are “Meh” not great, but they are … wireless and minimally increase clutter.
    3. *Note* that I have a Jabra 410 talking hockey puck speaker phone which is wired, mounted on the lower left hand corner of my iMac.
      1. I just recently discovered Velcro with “Rogue Adhesive” which allowed me to get the Jabra 410 off my desk surface, and removed 1 wire’s worth of clutter.
    4. Pay me now, pay me later.
      There is no such thing as a free lunch. I have just as much wire clutter as Rands, I just insure that I can’t see the wires when I’m working. Here is the back of my iMac:

      1. From left to right I also have a USB hub/DVD ROM driver,
      2. an extra Apple cable to charge my (Meh) Apple Keyboard and Mouse. Tucked in at top center under the Apple.
      3. And a 3×5 card/pen reservoir
      4. And last but not least, I have a low intensity under-counter LED light attached to the bottom of my imac so I can work in the dark on my (meh) keyboard and still see the letters.
      5. 1.E.i. above show the clutter seen when working

The elements of a desk not being immense

Rands’ desk looks like it is 2.5’x5′ which in inches is 30″x60″ which is not bad by today’s standards. But … the I would change about Rands’ desk is to make it deeper. Like a foot deeper. My IKEA conference table desk is 43″ deep, and 73″ long.  Rands likes having his couch super deep, he needs to do the same thing with his desk.

Surface to Arm Ratio

After using my IKEA conference table work surface for a year, I felt like I was not able to use enough of the desk surface, so in true barbarian style, I slid the work surface far forward on the support frame. This made the front overhang off the support by 15.5″ and allowed me to cut a 15″ diameter hemisphere out of the desk front.

I can now roll my chair all the way into the hemisphere and reach both the far left (with my left hand) and far (with my right hand) right corners of the desk. So the surface to arm ratio for me on this desk = 1.

Makeover Suggestions for Rands’ Desk

  1. Two VESA monitor arms + iMac VESA adapter
    1. If your two display devices are vesa, two $30 single monitor arms are the way to go. I’ve tried the dual monitor arms and they don’t allow enough freedom to arrange the monitors.
    2. If you like Rands, have a recent vintage iMac without VESA support, then you’ll need the $100 MacSales.com VESA adapter. 
  2. Larger desk surface
    1. Deeper by at least 12″ is a must
    2. Wider would be nice too
    3. I would look for a larger desk surface at IKEA’s clearance area. There are lacquer panels in blood red that might do nicely while costing next to nothing.
    4. Try mounting the new surface over the top of the existing surface. Height change will not be too great. Chair goes up and life goes on.
    5. Rands probably does not need as much desk space as I do because it looks like 300 3×5 cards are not a big part of his thinking life.
    6. So Rands won’t need the 15″ hemisphere cut out either.
  3. Clutter (pictures, polar bear, etc.) moves left until it is out of peripheral vision while looking straight at the left-hand monitor.
    1. There seems to be a credenza at left, I would move that 3′ into the room perpendicular to the front of the desk (to get stuff out of peripheral vision), and put the clutter on the credenza.
      1. Idea = Minimal change and clutter eliminated.
      2. As David Allen says, you want “just enough” organization.
  4. Wireless keyboard/mouse/trackpad
    1. I switched to a track pad because I move my right wrist less on a track pad, and less movement has led to zero wrist pain.
  5. Twist ties or cable ties to hide all the wires from view while working at the 2 monitors.
  6. ScanSnap iX500 next to the printer at right.
    1. Scansnap is the digital on-ramp to
    2. Evernote to go paperless
    3. Printer is the digital off-ramp

Office Entelechy

  • Introduction

I’m mid-job-search right now. Decompressing from a 27 month stint at a startup with 60-100 hours a week. Received an awesome job offer last week that reminded me of a Rands In Repose post.

Scan down to “Deliberate Want” and the part about Michelle. My Michelle is Rachel, but I digress.

Decompression allows this thing, reading for fun, that it has been a while since I’ve engaged in. While in startup mode, I read for survival, not fun. But while I was finding Michelle in the post above, and sending the post to Rachel, I started reading more Rands posts.

  • Do this immediately!!!

And a post on CAVE ESSENTIALS jumped out and hit me so hard, I’m pointing you to it. I’m pointing you to CAVE ESSENTIALS right now! Do not walk, run to CAVE ESSENTIALS and experience organizational ambrosia via the written word.

Entelechy is a fancy way of saying “soul” Rand’s post is the soul of office organization. The elements of Rands office entelechy:

  1. Self-pleasing environment design (red walls that nobody else can understand)
  2. Telling people “The door… it’s right there.” at criticism of your office.
  3. Your “forever desk” …
    “A desk’s job is to build productivity, and for me, it achieves this by first providing an immense amount of clear working space.” There is an echo in this blog!
  4. Deep leather couch (so deep that when you put your back against the couch you are in a new time zone).
  5. “Lovingly curated bookshelves” (14)

Highly recommended!!!

Bill Meade

3″x5″ Cards and Manila Folder GTD Startup

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I had a request after yesterday’s post on clutter, to show the basic 3”x5” card and manila folder system that I urge people to implement GETTING THINGS DONE (GTD hereafter) with. This post’s purpose is to answer any questions about 3”x5” and manila as I implement GTD.

Your mileage will vary on my advice.  In fact, over time, my mileage with 3”x5” cards and manila folders has varied. The goal is to find a natural and expressively powerful way for your brain to work, not to rigidly adopt ideas. Right now I use a hybrid paper and computer (Evernote + Dropbox/Google Drive) GTD system.  But, I reserve the right to go 100% electronic in OmniFocus in the future, or 100% paper. If it feels good, do that!

Cards and Folders:

So, I helped an accountant implement GTD. Before GTD the accountant was very organized, in fact, almost over-organized.  Take a look at the desk before and after the GTD makeover:

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Accountant Before

And then, we scanned all reference materials into Evernote, recycled the paper, and set up a simple manila folder project system with one folder for each project, and all materials (letter paper, post it notes, etc.) captured within folders.

ALPFAGTDAsPresented pptx

Accountant After

Note the differences in the same cube. By switching note taking 100% to 3”x5” cards, ideas (one idea, one piece of paper) become mobile. Prior to 3”x5” cards, notes were taken in spiral bound notebooks and post it notes.

Spiral bound notebooks trap ideas in random order (see GTD page 30 where David Allen says “written notes need to be corralled and process instead of left lying embedded in stacks”) and post it notes seem like such a good idea when you are capturing the idea, but who knows where they go (with missing socks in the dryer?) when you need to refer back to them.

The basics of a GTD 1.0 makeover:

  • All object cleared from workspace where they can be seen in main working position (usually looking at a monitor). The single worst thing you can have in front of you when you is a picture of a person. Your subconscious can’t stop itself from processing faces. If you must have pictures move them out of view of your main work position.
  • Manila folder system kept outside field of view in main working position. In the after, the manila folders are at far left of the desk.
  • All reference materials scanned and entered into Evernote. All project materials gathered into manila folders. Please stop second guessing yourself and order the ScanSnap iX500 so you can finally get this over with.
  • *Note* Reference folders and project folders are PROFOUNDLY different. David Allen specifies supporting references be kept out of sight (GTD page 38) so having Evernote capture all of your materials is great.  Besides, you don’t have to figure out how to move a filing cabinet into your office. And even better, you can take a filing cabinet out of your office!

And, … that is it.

How It Works:

You have an idea, you write the idea down on a 3”x5” card. One idea, one piece of paper, simple really!

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Now, where do you put the 3”x5” card? If you don’t have a project that this idea is related to, you need to create a project. To do this I print a folder label on my Brother QL-700 label printer (link to Amazon for convenience but OfficeMax is cheaper). The print dialog looks like this:

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Then I print the label (2.5 seconds) and attach to the manila folder. Giving me a nice neat folder to hold my project.

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Next, you can put the 3”x5” card you created inside this folder. But now where do we put the folder? My answer is to buy itso small bins from Target …

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And then insert a small metal book-end inside …

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and then accumulate project “clumps” in the itso tote.  Here is an itso tote with my current clump of writing projects.

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You can see that the book-end prevents folders from becoming bowed.

The Payoff:

For me, the payoff from organizing projects in this way happens once I sit down to do the project.  I take the folder, open it up, and then I can spread out all the ideas I’ve accumulated about the project. When I see that all my ideas are where they should be, I get a subconscious jolt of affirmation. Aaaahhhhhh all the ideas are here. Now, let’s go!

IMG 20131230 213318

bill meade

Cross Disciplinary Evil of Clutter

Keep your station clear YouTube

“Keep your station clear, or I will kill you!”
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GgiK-HWKPjw 38 seconds
Source: Ratatouille


I left a browser tab open with Greg Bauges’ “Code Like A Chef: Work Clean” blog post to remind myself to create this short blog post on the cross disciplinary evil of clutter. Clutter is the strategic enemy of productivity, calm, creativity, and discovery. From kitchen to garage to office, clutter tells you that you have not organized for what you are doing.  So, potentially, you have not decided what you are doing.

Sound bits and bites from Greg’s post:

Thomas Keller (chef) bits and bites

  • Being organized – … ‘working clean’ – is a skill to develop
  • Organization is about setting yourself up to succeed
  • Clean as you go to avoid clutter
  • Clutter interferes with the cooking process

Greg Gauges (programmer) bits and bites

  • “Working clean” is the most valuable concept I’ve adopted from the kitchen
  • Working clean takes two forms: physical workspace, virtual workspace
  • I am continually cleaning my virtual workspace
  • Email does not stay open
  • The goal of a professional programmer is to produce clean, organized code
  • We can avoid pressure by keeping our systems, our code, and our design as clean as possible

This post reminded me of the scene in the animated movie Ratatouille where Colette (Jeaneane Garofalo) teaches Remy (Patton Oswalt) how to cook by avoiding clutter’s complexities “You cannot be mommy!”

On Clutter:

What I’ve learned about clutter:

1. Clutter happens when I do not have places for things

  • Example: Reference filing materials in piles on my desk before using Evernote
  • Fix: Creating Stations (See THE HOUSE THAT CLEANS ITSELF) with everything you need to complete a specific task, kept out of site until you are doing the task.
2. I am bi-polar about clutter.  I can be repelled by clutter, or, I can knowingly run into the burning barn of clutter
  • Example: Mindless internet surfing
  • Fix: Understand why running into a burning barn seems good.  Usually, it is fatigue-generated for me. Naps are important, but I have a hard time taking them. Exercise is also important, etc.

3. A clear desk and focused work environment (i.e., lack of clutter) pierces the armor of resistance to people hearing about GETTING THINGS DONE

  • Example: I worked with an accountant at a big firm this year. My GTD implementation process is to get desks 100% clear, get all reference materials into Evernote, and then get a simple 3”x5” card and manila folder system set up for projects. The accountant’s desk was by no means messy, it was just cluttered with every possible tool that might be useful. Clearing the desk, once everyone realized the accountant was not leaving the firm, brought peers and senior managers to ask about how they could implement.
  • Fix: I think we unconsciously hate the clutter we create at our work stations. Try nuking all objects that are in your field of vision at your desk computer. Just try it

bill meade

Abomination of Deskolation … Redeemed!

First the before pictures:

Ladies and gentlemen, 28 years in the making, RestartGTD brings you THE ABOMINATION OF DESKOLATION!

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Figure 1: The Abomination of Deskolation!

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Figure 2: The Accompanying Office

Now the after pictures:

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Figure 3: The wait, … what?

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Figure 4: Wow, just wow!

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Figure 5: How It was accomplished

The Story:

This is John Niebergall’s desk.  John is an engineering teacher at Sherwood High School in South Portland.  As I’ve gotten to know John (i.e., seen his desk and had him over to my office to see my desk), I encouraged him to read GETTING THINGS DONE.  Over the holidays John listened to GTD three or four times via Audible, and then wanted help translating the ideas in GTD to his work processes.  I believe the specific words were “I’m a visual learner, I don’t do well reading books.  I need to see it.”

John is the target blog reader that I started RestartGTD to serve.  I’ve traveled to John’s office, carrying my Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500M (I use portable Macs), had John take down one of the three ring binders against the back wall of his office, and we scanned it into PDF.   Done!  Four minutes, and now the paper and the binder both can go in the recycle bin.   It was hard to let that first binder go.  But the liberation grows on you rapidly.  It gets easier the more space you free up in your office.

Seeing scanning is believing.  John ordered his own Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500 (PC) and I made another trip down to his office to take the scanner out of the box.  Maybe I should do a poll of how many GTDers have purchased scanners and never taken them out of the box? You know who you are! De-boxing is the key next action in getting a scanner up and contributing to your mind-like-water.

In addition to the visible things on and around John’s desk, I believe there is a second USB hub that is hidden inside the typing elevator drawer space.  And also, that there is a power adapter in that space to feed the label printer and scanner.

Reflections on Abomination’s Redemption:

Note in Figure 1, that John had a trackball on his desk when he started GTD.  This desk makeover has shifted him to a small travel mouse. There are wireless trackballs from Logitech and Kensington, but they cost $30 more than the Logitech M305.

John chose to keep his legacy desk with leg stalls.  That is this style of desk is like a horse stall, only for your legs.  I prefer sliding side to side so that I can start parallel projects on different parts of my desk during the day as interruptions happen.  My advice to John was to cut the surface off this desk and then mount it on IKEA legs. Ikea’s desks have inexpensive cable management options, and they are simple to work with.

The glass on the desk feels disruptive to me.  Glass is cold when you put your hands and forearms on it.  I think I’d prefer to remove the glass, and then I’d probably resurface this desk with white-board-contact-paper.  White lightens the room (always welcome in Portland where we get 5.5 inches of rain per month), and gives you a place to jot notes with white board pens, so you can save paper.

John is a public school teacher who has been in Sherwood High School for 28 years.  And he is digging his way out via GTD.  Teachers, you CAN DO THIS!   If I can shift to GTD, anyone can.  The key is to start.  Don’t start big or small.  Don’t give yourself the chance to over think this.  Just start.  John got the scanner, Evernote, and then beautifully reconfigured his desk (putting the scanner on the old typewriter elevator is genius!:-) to support his workflow.

Thank you John for sharing your before after.  Anyone else interested in sharing?  Before/afters are fantastic motivators.  Email me if you have pics you are willing to share.