This guest post was written by Paul Balcerak, a web producer for KIRO 7 Eyewitness News in Seattle where he produces web content and manages social media. He blogs about journalism and new media on his website, paulbalcerak.com.
First thing’s first: Any desk I’ve ever worked at has looked like a complete disaster. That’s all right. I worked with this guy once whose desk just consisted of stacks of paper, but if you asked him for something, he could find it in two seconds. Point is, having a desk that makes and keeps you productive doesn’t really have anything to do with organization — if you’re messy, be messy — it just has to do with keeping things on hand that’ll help you get from point A to point B in your work day without being distracted.
Despite my messiness, I’m a pretty productive guy and I attribute that to keeping a good supply of everything I need at my desk. Here’s a comprehensive list:
1. Comfortable seating
I’m not entirely sure what the current laws on ergonomic seating are, but everyone’s at least entitled to a relatively comfortable place to sit. And if you work at home, it makes sense to invest in a comfortable chair that’s right for you; after all, you’re going to be spending the majority of your day in it.
I’m 6’4″, so most average desks and chairs are already uncomfortable to me. You may not have the same problem, but if you do, mention it. A lot of people don’t even think to ask if they can have a nicer chair or one of those rubbery things that goes in front of a keyboard and prevents carpal tunnel syndrome.
2. Water and snacks
Staying hydrated is a huge deal and being dehydrated can make you feel awful, which obviously makes it harder to work. People actually need quite a lot of water to stay properly hydrated — one way to estimate how much you need is to take your weight, halve it and replace “pounds” with “ounces.”
With the snacks, make them smart ones; pick things that aren’t going to crash your blood sugar and make you fall asleep after 20 minutes. I like protein-y snacks like peanut butter + celery or fresh fruit.
3. Paper and writing tools
These are always useful, whether you’re taking a phone call or sketching out a design. Having a computer in front of you is all good, until your internet connection goes down in the middle of an important call or crashes on you before you start a big project. I love computers, you love them, none of us could live without them, but the old-fashioned way is still sometimes more reliable and I find it’s good to have a pen and paper in front of me for emergencies.
4. A timer
My job keeps me crazy busy and it’s not hard for me to accidentally work through a meeting or some other appointment. I keep a whole mess of alarms set on my phone so I don’t forget things (ask my family — I think I had like five alarms go off before Thanksgiving dinner at 3 p.m.).
An alarm works the other way, too: If you don’t have enough to do, an alarm can keep you on task. I’ve had days at home before where I’ve set an alarm and said, “OK, for the next 30 minutes, I’m going to crunch social media metrics, then when it goes off, I’ll give myself a five-minute break.”
5. A second computer monitor
This may not be for everyone, but I find that visually splitting up my work helps me focus on one thing at a time (regular work on one screen, TweetDeck on the other, anyone?). Even if that’s not helpful to how you work organizationally, it always helps to have more space. Ever start writing an e-mail and have to come back to it over and over again? It’s so much easier to swipe it over to another screen than to minimize it and let it clutter up your desktop (especially if you’re running Windows).
6. Something analog
(This is independent of the pen and paper.) Every now and then, do something to take your eyes away from your computer screen: Print out a long document that you have to proof, read a book at lunch — whatever. I consciously get up from my desk to go eat lunch either at a restaurant (re: Subway) or the break room. I can’t always help it, but on the days that I’m not too busy, a good hour away from my desk keeps it from becoming monotonous and probably helps keep me from eventually going blind. I come back feeling refreshed, like I just started a new work day.
(Optional but recommended: Techno music.) When I really, really need to get work done, I need a quiet space. Failing that, I need some form of audio stimulation that’s rhythmic, drowns out everything else and is easy to ignore.
Headphones are also helpful for long conference calls; that way, you don’t have to hold the phone to your ear for an hour or blast your speakerphone for the whole office to hear.
This post, by the way, is being brought to you by headphones and BT.
8. Cold medicine
Offices, in terms of germ content and potential for sickness, are disgusting. That’s what sick days are for, but sometimes we don’t have that luxury. I like Emergen-C for “blah” days and industrial strength DayQuil for “feeling like the first victim of the zombie apocalypse” days. I also, of course, keep Purell everywhere to try and head colds off at the pass, too.
Like I said earlier: Feeling like crap can really put a crimp in your productivity.
9. Instant coffee
It sucks being tired and then getting so busy that you don’t have time to fetch a cup of coffee. For me, the instant coffee game starts and stops with Starbucks Via, but do whatever you want. Via mixes really well and leaves virtually no grains in your coffee, except for that deliciously caffeine-y sludge that always ends up at the bottom.
10. Useful distractions
When you do let your mind wander, let it wander toward useful things. I do my best to rifle through my Instapaper or Google Reader queue at least once per day. I’m big on taking on reading assignments that aren’t for work, but are still work-related. I find break time at the office to be an appropriate time to flex my brain on those.
Did I miss anything? What do you keep at your desk to stay productive? Let me know in the comments.