Separate but Equal Workspaces

Separate but Equal Workspaces

Yesterday I was having a tough time focusing on work, and I kept peeking in on the blog stats and email. I attributed my state of distraction to some personal things, which seem to have heightened my sensitivity to the cluttered state of my office. After decluttering a small portion of it I decided that it was time to finally do a light reorganization to get me some more deskspace; it’s been on my “Would Be Nice” list for weeks.

The original plan was simple: shift the table right by 3 feet, then put another small table to my left. This would give me the additional square footage of deskspace I so craved. So the first thing I moved was the laptop computer I use for email, and I had a flash of insight: this laptop was the source of much distraction. I quickly itemized the main distractions I faced during a typical day:

  • The laptop, with its constant stream of email and instant messages.
  • The blog, with all the readership stats that tell me what people are looking at.
  • The Internet, more specifically the handsome collection of entertaining bookmarks I check on a regular basis.

What I really needed to do, I figured, was to remove these distractions from my main office. With fewer distractions, it might be easier to focus. The laptop is so conveniently located that it practically begs to be used; you’d think after writing about eliminating distractions I would have figured that out by now!

When Convenience Is Distraction

I’ve been told on a few occasions that it’s important to have a separate work-only space that you can go to. I never followed up on that, because it costs money and no one had actually explained to me why this worked. Keep in mind that most of my professional office experience has been in game development, which has a very weird notion of what belongs in the office. You’ll find all kinds of toys, media, games, hardware, etc…any kind of inspiration, and often many forms of transient entertainment for those long hours while you’re waiting around but can’t go home yet. My notion of a workspace is pretty messed-up!

With the distraction model in mind, I can finally decide what really needs to be in my workspace:

  • work-related email
  • work-related project files
  • work-related reference materials

Everything else doesn’t belong there, including:

  • bookmarks to my daily cartoons and online forums
  • blog stat links
  • personal instant messaging
  • personal email

Over the past several years, I’ve evolved a pretty comfortable system for managing all these pieces, concentrating communications onto a laptop, which sits next to a main production computer, linked together by a common file server over a fast network. This makes it easy to keep all the email and files in one place, and I could find what I was looking for fairly easily. I have a private webpage hosted on my web host that has all the common links I use every day, so every browser in my house starts with the exact same bookmarks. It’s great…the system has evolved to provide me with maximum ease of access to all my data. Unfortunately, I’m not realizing, this was tantamount to designing for maximum distraction potential.

Out with the Old, In with the New

Today I spent a good chunk of the day separating the workspaces, which involved the following:

  • I defining three main types of tasks: project work, blogging, and personal communication. The downstairs basement office will be for project work only, and everything else will stay on the laptop computer.

  • I creating separate email accounts for work, blogging, and personal use. This was fairly involved, since I have a lot of mail aliases.

  • I installed email on my work computer, in this case Mozilla Thunderbird. I’ll be able to check work-related email at the work computer, and that’s all; all personal email will be received by the laptop.

  • I set up redirect rules for my old email program to catch anyone who’s using my personal email address for work purposes. My email program will automatically redirect email it receives based on some filtering rules for certain business-related individuals. It will take some time before I get everyone transitioned over to the new email addresses, but it will be worth it.

  • I created a new upstairs workspace, away from the office. So from now on, any blogging or personal email will have to be done in my living room.

  • I created a new browser start page for my work computer. The old one (which is still in use on the laptop) has all the “fun” links stripped out of it, replaced with shortcuts to various project management areas on my site. No more online cartoon or blog link, and definitely no more links to my stats page! I was checking them waaay too often!

  • I’m thinking of installing some kind of blocking software on my work machine to prevent me from looking at my stats page between certain hours. This is probably overkill :-)


p>So the experiment this week: see if separating work from play spaces makes any difference in my focus and productivity. I think that removing the distraction of incoming blog and personal email may help a bit. I’m actually not convinced that this will make a big difference, but there is at least gain already: by moving the laptop upstairs, I’ve gained 6 square feet of extra desk space, which was what I wanted in the first place. Any productivity gains on top of that is gravy, as far as I’m concerned :-)

If anyone is curious, you can see pictures of my old workspace space; you can see the laptop in the corner on the green tables, conveniently located next to the main workstation.


  1. Jason Manheim 18 years ago

    When I tried moving work components to different rooms I found myself sitting on the floor between the rooms shaking. Trying to rationalize “just 3 minutes in the ‘fun’ room then I’ll go back to work.” :)

    It didn’t work. I had to learn the voicing my productivity trick. Now, I just shout my reasons for sitting down in front of the computer; let the world know what I intend to do. It’s a little unnerving for the neighbors but they manage. Today, everything is in one place; I link the computers with Synergy so I only have to use one keyboard and mouse, somehow that makes me think I’m spending less time going back and forth.

    I do however hope it works out for you. Thanks for sharing Dave.


  2. Jim Estill 18 years ago

    One trick I use is having a credenza behind my desk.  I also have a file drawer.  Any clutter goes there (and I know I should not have any).  That way it is not calling “do me, do me”.

  3. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Jason: Thanks for sharing! Vocalization is an interesting idea! I tried it when doing some pushups, and couldn’t quite squeeze out that last one until I bellowed something like BWAaaAARRRGH. Maybe there’s something about hearing someone’s VOICE that spurs people to action, even if it’s your own.

    Jim: That’s a neat idea…I will have to look up what a credenza is now :-)

    General Observation: Having the blog/personal station upstairs is making me acutely aware of NOT being at the work seat, and it’s creating a palpable sense of tension. It’s also coupled with a new thing I’m trying (prototype PCEO form), so it may be related. Not sure yet.

  4. Lindsay 18 years ago

    Playtime is always hard to let go of, isn’t it?  Perhaps that why it took you a bit longer to realize it was detracting from your productivity… denial is a powerful thing! ;)

  5. Senia 18 years ago

    That is such a coup to remove the email distraction!  I did that for a few weeks once, and loved it!  My deal with myself was that I could check email only four times a day.  Maybe I’ll go back to that!  :)

  6. Tim 18 years ago

    Just came across this download today:

    Could be an easy way for you to put block access to certain sites on your work computer :)