Trimming Down - Not Just For Home Anymore

06 November 2011

As I’ve worked to shed my life of the unnecessary (especially in terms of physical objects), I’ve been wrestling with how to apply that outside the space that is easiest for me to control (my living space).

Like other aspects of this quest, this is still a work in progress, but I have decided on and am in the process of implementing various ideas for my work environment as well.

At least among IT people (and I suspect this is more widely applicable, too), work environments tend to become extremely cluttered with cables, computers and related equipment, little knicknacks to ‘personalize’ your cube/office, food items (usually of the unhealthy variety), and books. Oh lordy, the books.

When I started, these were the inhabitants of my desk, all within my view field all the time:

  • 27” iMac
  • second 24” LCD monitor
  • wired keyboard
  • wireless mouse
  • wireless mouse inductive charger
  • mousepad
  • speakers (with subwoofer under the desk)
  • backup firewire hard drive + enclosure
  • iPhone/iPad cable
  • ethernet cable
  • cables for second USB hard drive I bring in from home occasionally
  • microwavable tea pot
  • earthenware teacup
  • phone
  • fork/spoon (usually kept under the iMac)
  • stack of napkins (I tend to be a messy eater in the office)

In addition, there is a bookshelf with a couple of shelves of books (only a few of which are mine personally, most are books bought by work that have been semi-permanently relocated to my space for convenience), a shelf with vitamins/fiber capsules/tea bags/disposable bowls/oatmeal, a shelf with office supplies that are in here because I’m too lazy to walk to the supply room.

Even with all this, my office is big enough that it still doesn’t really feel cluttered, but surely there could be less stuff around. My main interest here is in improving my work habits, by making my work area more appealing and removing things that interfere with my focus.

This all started to come together a couple of weeks ago, when I was on a self-imposed hiatus from my office. The air conditioner unit that cools my office and the three adjacent has been on the fritz lately: it blows 24/7 without ever shutting off, and some mornings it has been as low as 58 degrees in my office when I arrive in the morning (why couldn’t it have been this way when it was 98 outside?). After a while of begging for a laptop for completely unrelated reasons, I had finally gotten a hand-me-down Macbook Air. I decided the temperature and even more importantly the noise from the howling wind were too much in my office and took the laptop to begin working from an empty cubicle in a part of our floor less influenced by Siberia for its climate needs.

But then I realized the Air was not going to cut it as a telecommuting machine. It was fine for taking notes, light web browsing, etc., but not nearly big enough for fast enough to do all the things I typically needed to do throughout the day. I originally wanted the Air for its ultra-portability, not thinking I’d ever need to seriously work from the thing. So, a little more horse trading with the boss and I agreed to try out a 17” Macbook Pro, which was the only other laptop available at the moment.

And I fell in love with working from it.

This got me seriously thinking about whether working from a laptop as my main workstation was feasible (as a couple of others in my group have done for some time). So I decided to try it out that way for a while.

What I found was that with a lot less going on around me (keep in mind I was used to spreading stuff out on a 27” and 24” screen), I stayed on task a lot better, and felt much less tempted to keep multiple things going on at once just because I could spread them out well enough to see them all. Plus, this has the added benefit of freeing up a ton of desk space.

I even started to play with the notion that I usually didn’t need a dedicated office as a space to work from, that now I could less tied to space and more focused on the work than the immediate environment. (Not to mention the advantages of not having people coming in my door all the time!). I don’t know yet if completely abandonding a dedicated work space will be allowed much less beneficial in the long run, but I’ve mentioned the idea to the Boss and not had it shot down out of hand so we’ll see how it goes.

Working from the laptop eliminates many of the cables I had to use before, but can’t get rid of all them. Many of these cables (iPhone cable, I’m looking at you!) are duplicates of duplicates of duplicates (after years of being an iPod/iPhone/iPad user, I have more of those cables than I can count). Now at the end of each day, I pack up the laptop itself plus the power cable and the iPhone cable, as well as unplug the ethernet cable and USB cable for my backup hardrive. There’s a certain Zen-like simplicity to this, the modern equivalent to ‘leave no trace’ camping that I enjoy as well. Putting everything in its place and leaving a completely clean desk to start from each morning is more satisfying than I would have imagined.