Building a Productive Workspace

August 26, 2019 Curtis McHale

Few people head into work planning to be unproductive with their time.

We all want to keep our jobs, and that means that we need to show bosses and clients that we are providing value for the time we spend inside the office.

Today we're going to look at two aspects of setting up a focused and productive workspace.

First, we'll tackle your computer and some changes you can make to improve your productivity.

Second, we're going to look at the environment around you so that you can customize it to maximize the value you can create.

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Setting Up Your Tools

The first step in setting up your tools for productivity is deciding what they are for. If your laptop is for programming, why does it have social media tools on it? Do they help you get your work done? Yes, you may get some questions answered on social media that directly pertain to your job, but do those few extra questions provide more value than social media takes away by distracting you?

I have three customized devices for my work. First, I have a Mac Mini that mostly houses long term backup files and on which I do a bit of programming when I really need to interact with a web browser as I'm building WooCommerce sites.

Setting up your productive workspace

Second, I have an iPad Pro which is my main work environment. Here I have my writing tools and my programming tools. I do most of my work here unless it's a design heavy job because the web browsers available on iPad are okay, but not stellar for building visual heavy projects. I add email to this machine because it's my main work machine and no matter how much I'd love to never look at email, it's part of dealing with my clients.

Third, I have an iPhone 6S Plus that is for less and less these days. I have a few utility apps on it for scanning receipts and then it's mostly a phone and text messaging device.

This means that I don't have social media on my iPad, because that's not its job. I do have it on my Mac Mini in part because when it's time to post an update on social media I have to turn on a screen and change the connection on my Bluetooth keyboard so that I can interact with my Mac.

The extra hurdle to "quickly" check Twitter means I rarely do it unless interacting with social media is a task on my list for the day.

Take a step back and look at your devices. What are they for? Do you actually need social media on your primary work machine?

Most people don't realize how much time they spend on social media in a day and using something like Rescue Time can help you get a handle on that time. Once you have some numbers on the usage of apps that distract you from your primary focus it's much easier to realize how much value is lost. Say you spend a total of 10 hours on social media a week and you charge $150/hour. That means it cost you $1500 to use social media this week during work hours.

Would you pay $1500 a week for the privilege of making off-hand comments to people? Is complaining about the burger that didn't match the advertisement worth $1500 in a week? For almost all of us the answer is no and that should lead us to use all our tools as if it was our job.

A social media manager doesn't spend hours trolling social media. They have a task to do so they open whatever tool they need and do the task. Then they move on to the next task. By choosing specifically the apps that we put on our devices, we can help improve our productivity and create a better software workspace for ourselves.

A Word on Multitasking

Multiple devices each with their intended purpose
Photo by Mateusz Dach from Pexels

One thing to think seriously about is the truth behind multitasking, and even the benefit behind multiple monitors. Yes some studies say that having multiple monitors allow you to work faster, but I've never seen one that addresses the myriad distractions that can clutter your monitors.

Multitasking is one of the biggest things that can take away from your productive day. I take it seriously enough that I work on an iPad, which by its very nature is a device that excels at mono-focusing on the task at hand because it really only makes available the main app you're working in. At most I can have three apps on my screen, and one of those is really only useful for a quick reference.

As you set up your computer and software, make sure that you choose ways to make it harder to split your focus between different applications that aren't directly intended for the work at hand. That means, cut the notifications, which we'll talk about in later, and ensure that you only allow in your view the tools you need to get your job done.

Every single extra application open is a little gremlin waiting to steal your focus from the task at hand.


After choosing and customizing your tools to allow for maximum productivity, it's time to look around at your environment. Are you working in the optimal place, with the right tools for your job?

I know that some of you won't have the same freedom to customize your workspace to your liking because you work for an employer that dictates how you work, but that doesn't mean you can't take some steps to improve the situation.

Setting up a productive workspace environment
Photo by Marc Mueller from Pexels

To start, look at a good pair of headphones preferably ones with noise cancelling in them. You don't even have to listen to music, just use them to take a lot of the edge off of the noise that can pull your focus away from the task at hand. In many offices they can be used as a way to show that you're in focus mode and shouldn't be disturbed. I even use these at my home office to help drown out some of the noise that happens in any city. I've been doing it so long that simply putting headphones on helps me feel like it's work time.

If you have control over your workspace it's worth putting some investment into choosing well. Back in 2012 I spent months looking for the right keyboard for me and landed on this odd Kinesis Freestyle keyboard. I'm on my third edition of it, not because they've failed but because they've come out with new versions that have seemed like a decent upgrade. I currently own two of them so that if one breaks I have a spare to use immediately.

No the keyboard isn't cheap by the time you include the VIP 3 lifter accessories I have for it. But before I had this keyboard I was fighting repetitive injuries that made my hands numb all the time. To purchase all the keyboards I tried out cost less than $1000 and all these years later I no longer have problems typing.

Other good ergonomic improvements are a standing desk, especially if you can change it between sitting and standing. A stand, or mounting arms, to raise your monitors and devices up to a proper height so you're not looking down all the time.

Many of those same changes can be made if you don't have total control of your work environment. Bring in your own keyboard and talk to your boss about a stand, or use some old books to raise your monitor up to the proper height.

One final environmental considerations to make regarding your productivity. How are you going to deal with interruptions from your devices? None of my devices have notifications on them most of the time. Even my wife can't send me a text message to interrupt my work. The only way she can get in touch with me no matter what I'm doing is with a phone call.

This lack of notifications should be extended to anything that's not directly helping you do your work in the moment. Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hanson call Slack and other chat tools an all day meeting where you can't choose the participants. You have to keep up with the flow just in case there is something that pertains to you. Instead if your company uses Slack, schedule times to check in with it and leave it alone the rest of the time so that you can focus on the work you need to do.

The few times I need to see text message or other notifications, I turn them on and set a reminder to turn them off again at the end of the day. This means that most days I get to sit down and work on a task without any distractions, instead of constant breaks in my flow as others decide they need my attention.

If you can be intentional about how you set up your devices and how you interact with the environment around you, you can do the same work in less time. That gives you the option of providing more value, or taking a walk or playing in the park with your kids.

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About the Author

Curtis McHale

Curtis is a husband, father, developer and business coach. He specializes in helping people build a business that lets them spend time with their family instead of working all the time. To learn more about running an effective business visit: <a href="">

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