A new desk

“You spend 1/3rd of your life on a mattress – so invest in a good one!”

I’ve heard/read something like this several times when researching or shopping for a new mattress, but is the amount of time spent something you consider when you think about your desk?

Perhaps you already do, but up until recently I personally never thought too much of a desk. In my mind it was an occasional place for a laptop, peripherals, and whatever else collects on it’s surface before periodic decluttering. I have spent time in the past browsing through subreddits, reviews, and workspace profiles of individuals I respect and seen the environments in which they work, but I have never personally spent much effort in creating a desk for myself that is more than just functional, but also a pleasure to use.

A quick note: Throughout this post I am referring to a desk/workspace as a place to study, develop, play games, or interact with others outside of work hours. Of course if you work from home (as many are currently) there will be overlap.

The work from home nomad

To be totally honest, there was (and still is) something effortlessly cool about being able to work anywhere comfortably – especially when developing software. I’ve spent hours working from a couch, taken Zoom calls from an armchair, and very occasionally propped my laptop onto a nearly empty desk to “focus”. I know it sounds naive, but the mental image of a laid-back hacker flicking out code from their fingertips in a cafe, airplane, or anywhere else they desire has a cool factor – at least to me. But despite that, it became clear that this nomadic image was leading to too much distraction and was holding me back. To accomplish my personal goals, I needed a true workspace. The professionals, creatives, and builders that I look up to all seem to have one, and of course I still can work occasionally in a cafe or while sitting in an armchair, but so far I am functioning better with a dedicated place to work.

I have now been using a more thoughtfully designed (and in turn more expensive) workspace for about a month. That time has been dotted with several deliveries of now discarded but at the time “must-have” accessories – but incrementally I have built out a workspace that works for me. I have to say, it’s been a quite extraordinary change to my life, and I would like to share some of the pieces that have made it successful so far.

Location location location…

Although my physical desk itself has not changed, I have had quite a few desk locations in the past few years. I’ve gone from a college dorm to apartments #1, #2, #3, #4, and #5 and have had my desk in a different type of place nearly every time. I’ve generally put it in front of some sort of window, even though I generally kept the blinds/curtains closed and have my non working (prime desk) hours in the evenings. In other apartments my desk was positioned to overlook a larger space in the room (and maybe even with a view of the TV?). I now believe the location of a desk to be one of the most important and subjective aspects of it’s potential success as a workspace.

When I first began thinking more seriously about my workspace I came across this comic about the iterations of author Stephen King’s desk over time. I have only read a few of his books, but I know he is a prolific author of well received work. What stood out to me is where his desk started and ended up after experiencing the early struggles, initial successes, high expectations, and navigating a work-family balance. I’ve pulled out the quote that stood out to me just below, but I highly recommend reading the comic as well.

After trying this out for a little while, I’m a strong believer that a corner is the best location for a workspace – at least for me. I have walls on two sides to personalize and decorate, but these same walls also function as a half cubicle to remove too many external distractions while not having the sensation of being closed in.

Find the cost plateau

Part of the appeal of the nomad hacker mental image is the relatively low cost. Once you have a laptop and some earbuds/headphones you can work just about anywhere, anytime, wearing just about anything. I had several issues with this approach:

  • It became difficult to separate personal “work” (side projects, research, studying, etc.) from “play” (surfing Reddit, news, HN, etc.)
  • A desk seemed to provide no added benefit as it was basically a table with a lamp
  • I was surrounded with distractions

There is a whole world of beautiful desks and workspaces to view on the internet, i’ll touch on some of those inspirations in the final section, but for now know that many of these setups are expensive in their entirety.

If you remember I started this post by comparing desks to mattresses. The point of that comparison is hopefully quite transparent. If you are working or studying things outside of work (or if you work remotely) you will spend a non negligible amount of your life at your workspace. Just as it makes sense to spend a bit extra on a mattress, you should feel comfortable justifying investing in your workspace. However – there is a plateau, which I have tried to illustrate here.

Hopefully this image is self explanatory. There are significant gains to be had by investing in foundational aspects of a workspace. These are things like a good desk chair, an external monitor or two, having peripherals that are a pleasure to use, personal touches and decorations, etc. The order of the beneficial elements will be different from person to person, but there will be a point where spending more will have a diminishing impact on overall effectiveness of your time spent. Of course, this is all subjective, if you like collecting keyboards, an arc of monitors, and want a custom built desk these may improve your time spent in your workspace, but the “returns” likely won’t be a signifiant as the right initial pieces.

So in other words, get the basics right and try not to chase too much after desk perfection.

I work here

This point is simple and straightforward. When I am at my workspace I want to be working on something. I have purposefully designed my laptop to easily disconnect from my desk by using an audio interface and a USB hub. This reduces the friction of moving my laptop too and from my desk. If I want to scroll the web for more than 5-10 minutes, I unplug my laptop and head over to the couch, or armchair, or bed – basically my old desks. When I want to work on something for a prolonged period of time, I head back to my actual workspace.

Inspirational sources

Finding inspiration was a big part of developing my workspace and moving away from the home desk nomad lifestyle. I shared a few snippets throughout the post but wanted to list out some inspirational sources to wrap this up.

  • Abstract (Netflix docuseries)
    • This series highlights creatives and designers and gives a view into individuals at the top of their respective fields in their natural workspaces.
  • Reddit
    • r/battlestations: The main subreddit for posting advanced desks. There is a strong gaming focus but much inspiration to be drawn from here.
    • r/AverageBattlestations: Similar to the above but on a budget or more minimal.
    • r/workspaces: Similar to r/battlestations but more focused on where you spend time working.
    • r/workstations: See above, emphasis on CAD, art and music production, software development, etc.
  • Ergodex EZ interviews
    • This page lists out interviews with a variety of individuals describing their desk setups.
  • Famousworkspaces (Tumblr)
    • A collection of images of famous people’s workspaces. There is a large variety here and lots to pick out.
  • The Desk (Zenpencils comic)
    • Mentioned earlier, the iteration of a successful author’s desks over the years.

My desk!

Well I can only muse for so long, here are a few images of my workspace – links to individual components at the bottom. Thanks for reading!

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