A Planning Workspace of My Own

A Planning Workspace of My Own

Over the past two weeks I’ve been working on a couple of projects, and all my physical workspace organization has gone out the window. While I like my general workstation setup a lot, it gets cluttered with useful notes and books that are specific to what I’m making. Right now, I’ve got some new software manuals spread open, some sketchbooks, and a lot of empty mugs and loose pieces of paper floating around. Compounding the problem is that the entire surface is cat-accessible; when they want attention, they have no problem knocking things down and putting themselves in my way.

So yeah, everything’s a mess.

I went to B&N to try to pick up (finally) David Allen’s Get Things Done book. It’s about time I’ve read it, and I thought maybe he’d have some insight into the problem. Unfortunately they didn’t have any copies on hand, but as I was walking by the Cafe Coffee Station, I realized that perhaps I just needed to compartmentalize my workspace a little further. This would allow for more simultaneous processes to execute while keeping the management process in a separate space.

The Current Workspace

LairMy workspace consists of a desktop and a laptop PC next to each other in an L configuration. I use the green table for extra space, to the right of the laptop. The 12″ Powerbook isn’t usually on this desk. The main desk is nice and deep. Filing and notes are to the left of the desk. Not shown is a recently-added whiteboard/pinboard, on which I keep a calendar and other notes. There are also pens and pencils, which weren’t yet put in place when I took this picture.

Lair ReverseBehind the main workspace is a drafting table set up for digital photography, drawing, or other activities that require better light. It also sometimes serves as a secondary reading station, when I’m looking at several books at the same time, since the bookcases are right next to it.

I am postulating the need for a third workspace that is devoted entirely to project management. Not just of my actual work projects, but of everything: bills, financial planning, personal projects, etc. I could use software or palm devices, but I like to see everything at a glance. Maybe more important, I need a place where I can keep all the related materials in one place, easily findable. My current arrangement scatters planning materials in several places, so I have to hunt for it. A DIYBinder might do the trick, but again I like to see multiple projects at once.

Here’s the problem: computers are capable of running several helpful applications at once for tracking, but the screen is the bottleneck. I don’t see anyone designing productivity apps that fit in tiny windows, which is a darn shame and something I want to rectify someday. And since my main work involves massive full-screen applications, I generally need all the screen real-estate I can get. Two monitors help a lot, since you can put notes on the second monitor. It would be nice to run some of the project management / utility software at the same time, but switching back and forth between email notes, file browser windows, help windows, etc is a pain in the butt. And what if you’re working on TWO or THREE projects at the same time?

So we print the things we can: emails, notes, documentation and so forth. This helps widen the information channel, and the great thing about paper is that it’s persistent. You can print out that calendar, ToDo list, whatever, and it’s always there. That is, until you misplace them. The additional paper also piles up on your desk, creating a shuffling problem that just gets worse unless you’ve worked out a decent binder system and are disciplined about using them.

I’m reminded of computer memory system design. Memory comes in lots of forms…you’ve probably heard of “hard disk” and “RAM” and maybe even “cache”. You may not be familiar with “registers”, which is very fast memory located in your CPU. Memory is generally graded in terms of speed of access. Registers are the fastest, and there are usually only a few of them. The Intel processors only have something like 8 of them, while the PowerPC has a lot more. If you think of a processor like a brain, the registers are short-term memory…it’s the number of things you can juggle in your head without forgetting them. Most people can remember between 4 and 7 digits for example, just long enough to make use of them. Any more than that, though, and you’d have to write something down on paper or use some kind of memory trick (e.g. clumping “14”, “9”, and “2” into “1492”).

Why do I bring up registers? The same grading of speed applies to the use of my workspaces. Computer screens represent the most easily-accessible and useful of all my worksurfaces, but capacity is limited. I can work on 3 things pretty easily across two computers, but more than that I have to start switching the contents of the display. If I have to cross-reference more than 3 things (say, doing some project management), I need to switch the contents of the screen. Sure, it just takes a few clicks of the mouse, but they add up.

Since we don’t have a whole lot of registers available in a CPU, we have to store the information somewhere else. That’s what System RAM is used for. Whereas we may have only 1024 bytes of super-fast register storage, we can have gigabytes of System RAM. However, saving a number in system RAM is a LOT slower than using a register, especially on modern CPUs. I’m thinking that System RAM is analagous to printed material you keep on your desk or in binders. It’s convenient to access, almost as convenient as the computer screen, and less volatile. However, if you have too much paper, your desk becomes just as overwhelmed as the computer screen, and you’re forced to start shuffling through stuff (inefficient) or store the overflow somewhere. And that’s where we start thinking about filing systems.

Even though System RAM is slower than the CPU registers, it’s still way way faster than your computer’s Hard Disk system. This is yet another form of computer memory, storing data as files using the file system (the directories and filenames you’re used to using). Hard disk storage is very slow compared to System RAM, but convenient and practically endless. In our comparison to the physical workspace, everywhere not on your desk is like a hard disk: lots of space, somewhat slow to access. In other words, if you have to get out of your chair to get something, it’s a lot slower than if you’d had it right on your desk.

If you’ve stuck with me this far, cool. I realize the analogy isn’t perfect, but here’s the takeaway:

There is a lot of information competing for a limited amount of working space. The working space itself can be graded by speed, with the computer screen being the fastest and the floor being the slowest. To be more productive, one can design a workspace operating system to make the best use of the available working spaces given a set of tasks. As in any operating system design, we seek to minimize the cost of context switches between separate tasks while maintaining maximum flexibility and convenience.

My workspace before was designed for communication and production. I did not take the project management and oversight task into account as its own taskflow. Therefore, I think I need to do some expanding of my workspace layout to take this into account. It will take the form of an additional station: basically, just a convenient place to keep all my notes, papers, and ToDo lists. By keeping it separate from the communications and production areas, I think continuity across more projects can be maintained. I can tell you right now that the stuff is scattered EVERYWHERE at the moment. This is what I want to fix.

Workspace Use

Here’s a systems view of the main workspace.

Lair Layout There are two computers, labeled as display1 and display2. These are the information sources that are most easily accessible at eye-level. I’ve split the task focus between the two computers between production and communication for efficiency. These are the fastest workspaces.

  • display1, designated for production, is a dual-head desktop PC (1600×1200 and 1280×1024 resolution respectively). It’s my main workstation for doing graphics and development work. Its main project directory is shared over the network so I can easily access content from the laptop. The project directory is also mirrored to a file server (not shown) at regular intervals. Display1a is the main screen used for applications, and Display1b is used for my To Do text files and secondary windows.
  • display2, designated for pommunications, is a docked notebook (1400×1050 resolution). This is my email, time tracking, word processing, blogging, and instant messaging machine. In a crunch it gets used as a secondary workstation when color accuracy isn’t important. When I need a PC off-site, this is also the machine that goes with me. Display2 generally has a web browser up (WordPress admin), my email program (TheBat!), and Trillian for instant messaging. Since the project directory on the main workstation is shared, it’s pretty easy for me to send and receive attachements into the right project directories.


p>One unfortunate layout error, due to the screen arrangement, is that the position of my chair does not allow quick “turn and type” manuevering. I actually have to move to switch between computers. However, this makes me use my legs and changes my back posture, which is probably a good thing.

The next fastest workspaces are the two general-purpose areas deskA and deskB. There is some “open” space on each desk for things like notebooks, etc. These spaces are just as fast as the computer screens for static information like single pieces of paper, but not so fast if you need to search through several pages. Computers, if you like reading on the screen, are far faster for browsing. An interesting property of the physical desk space is that it is easily cluttered, and you end up spending time maintaining the organization. If you are only doing one thing at a time, it isn’t bad. However, if you are sorting your mail, sketching a diagram from reference, reading printed documentation, and eating lunch all at the same time, space management becomes a problem. So, you either clear your desk and file things away, or try to segment the use of the space. I don’t have too much of a problem with this, but I want to have my project continuity out all the time. That’s why I want a separate space, with its own continuity.

For long term storage, I have a file cabinet filing and two metal bins tempfile1 and tempfile2. I keep project notebooks and project envelopes (I use those inter-office manilla envelopes with the string) in them, organized loosely along noguchi filing principles: whatever I used last is in the front, with older stuff in the back.

I also have a noteboard on the wall next to the filing cabinet. This has a calendar pinned to it, with a small whiteboard positioned above it. Because it’s awkwardly positioned, I hardly use it except when I’m checking dates.

Supporting the workspace are various small whiteboards and personal folding tables. I use the small whiteboard to jot ideas on; they are just about the size of my scanner, so if I want to keep a something permanently I just scan it into a TIFF and save it into the right project folder. I like the small whiteboards because they’re very portable, and I like erasing with my finger as I work things out. I just like it. The personal folding tables are as overflow storage (extra books, for example) or setting up a temporary laptop desk for visitors.

Next Steps

I haven’t figured out what I’m going to do to make the project management space. It might be a small desk with fold-out doors for pinning things to, like an armoire desk. It needs to have space for storing clipboards with todo lists, extra small whiteboards, a place for the Printable CEO forms, and also reporting. Client contact information might be there too, perhaps accessed through an old clamshell iBook I have sitting around. In the meantime, I’ll conscript the drafting table for this area to see what information I end up needing the most. It’s not ideal because it’s farther away, but it’s a start!

UPDATE: Notes on the followup space creation is here.


  1. John Zeratsky 19 years ago

    I don’t think you want a separate space for planning. It’s going to become a pain to step back and forth between “planning” and “work.” Of course, that’s just me—it might work for you. Just seems like an artificial distinction between two things that are inexplicably linked.


  2. John Zeratsky 19 years ago

    Sorry, I didn’t mean “inexplicable.” I must have meant… intrinsically.

  3. Dave 19 years ago

    That’s a good point. I think I need a distinct OVERLAPPING space that I can see easily from where I’m working, like a physical version of Mac OS X’s Dashboard. I don’t really want to have to turn around and go to the drafting table, but I’m curious what my planning “kit” would look like, so that will be the prototype staging area. I think you’re right about it becoming a pain to physically step between planning and work.

    It could just be that I need some shelves, some hooks & clipboards, and a more accessible wall to put stuff on, essentially “completing the U” of my workspace setup. I may also just need some vertical storage/display directly over the main workspace, which I currently lack, that I designate for planning-related materials.

    I’ve always wanted to get one of those racks that restaurants use to hold the order slips on, for task tracking tickets :-) I never get to a restaurant supply place when it’s OPEN though!

    Order up! :-)

  4. Dean Johnson 19 years ago

    There are a couple of might that might possibly help.

    Why just two monitors? Add another couple. Dual vga video cards are like $100 and decent, nice-sized lcd monitors are a coupla hundred dollars each. Setup in a twinview/xinerama type arrangement makes life much better.

    Use a web-based project management application so that you can access it from your primary workstation. You can have it on a tab or a bookmark, which avoid having to physically switch contexts.

  5. Dave 19 years ago

    Hey Dean,

    Thanks for the suggestion! I’ve been thinking about that too…getting a few extra monitors on the same workstation, or maybe doubling-up on the laptop and using win2vnc to consolidate the input devices onto one thing. I’m sure that would be workable. There is something about the persistence of paper, though, that has been fascinating me anew. I think this is related to the general feeling that I spend way too much time looking at computer screens, so having something else to look at is something I’d like to incorporate into my daily workflow.

    I should give some of the web-based project management applications a try. In the past I haven’t liked using them because they’re not strong enough on providing a sense of “continuity”…I’m not quite sure what I mean by that yet, so this is yet another part of the project.

    To be productive now, of course, it isn’t really a question of “liking” but comitting.

  6. seuss 19 years ago

    if you go the multi-monitor route, a couple of these and you should be all set:


    or for a more horizontal layout


    you’ll feel COOL at least ;-)

    have to agree, however, re: looking at a screen non-stop. its a bit sickening sometimes to think of how much time i spend in front of a monitor. perhaps if you addressed this “problem” in some other way, a screen-bound app might not seem so offensive. but good luck finding something that doesn’t feel like you’re needing to shoehorn your life into its architecture.

  7. Simon 19 years ago

    First time I read your blog and I can realize that you are a awesome writter!

    I like your idea, and also like your workspace. Just a litle thingy. If you do that arragement you are planning to do, where is going the drafting table behind the displays?

  8. Beth 19 years ago

    I need to do some serious workspace overhaul as well, since my workspace doubles as a guest room at the moment.  I’m hoping to rectify this after the holidays, and cat-proof as well.  Personally, I’ll never be able to get rid of paper, much though I’d like to.

    I always keep a notebook by my desk, and anything that needs written down goes into it (todo lists included, hex values, you name it) then when a page is filled up, I stick a post it flag on it tagged with key info (unless the page is total scrap) so if I have to come back to it later it’s not such a pain.  Then the papers aren’t scattered everywhere, and you can label the notebooks with the relevant dates when you’re through.

    Now, where is your Aeron chair?!

  9. Dave 19 years ago

    Thanks for the links! An intriguing notion. But like you said, given the amount of time I spend in front of a monitor, I think I want LESS.

    Thanks for the kind words! As for the drafting table, it’s staying put right now (behind me), but I’ve cleared it off of the junk and am using it exclusively for keeping planning-related paper stuff. I’m starting to create some rough forms to help keep track of the overall day, at from the initial day of use (I started Sunday) it actually is rather relaxing and comforting.

    My eyes are starting to feel the strain of years of staring at monitors, so this might be why I’m attracted again to paper and more physical movement. One workspace improvement I want to make is to put things like calendars farther away so I’m forced to look up and refocus my eyes more often. I like the single notebook idea…I tend to just grab the nearest one (I have like 7 of them of different sizes and colors) and write in it. it’s terrible for continuity, but I often don’t refer to them later because they’ve already been transcribed into digital form. The exception is my new process notebook, which is where I’m keeping continuity on projects I’m working on. It’s basically a scrapbook of ideas.

    As for the Aeron chair…I never found them that comfortable. I tend to sit on the edge of the seat and lean forward rather than assume a comfortable slouch, so I have a regular office chair (a relatively expensive one at $150) that has a good solid feel to it.

    The Freedom Chairs though…those I want to have someday :-)

  10. Bo Jordan 19 years ago

    At home I have an L-shaped desk that I really like, but seeing your green desk makes me wonder: Is having a radically different surface color per desk a good idea for separating tasks at a more subconscious level?  I think it might be!

    My wrap-around cube desk at work just ends up in one long wrap-around clutter within a week or two of a reorg.  Would different colors/surfaces might help me keep things in line?

    I see you’re a fan of the 84-key Model M, the secret to maximum workspace efficiency! ;)

  11. Dave 19 years ago

    Hey Bo!

    That’s an interesting observation on the color…it does help a bit. I like these green tables a lot. The L is actually two of them from Staples, when they were selling these funky green and orange desks (I think they’re from Studio RT, a mass furniture maker). What I liked about them is that the edges were rolled, not sharp with laminate that cuts into your arms. The frame design is also very strong and well designed. The welds are awful, but the design is very forgiving…it’s a nice piece of work. I hate that! Also, I like green…this shade is especially cheery to me!

    Yes…the Model M in 84 key configuration is a well-kept secret :-) I tried a lot of compact keyboard to try to get the mouse closer to my hand (shoulder, wrist problems were starting to creep in). Not only is it more compact, but it allows you to use your mouse far more comfortably…the four inches you save makes a huge difference in comfort.