Office perfection; ah! – bliss.

Preface: This post is part of the MWA3P email project that I had started in June. Our project hui (hui is Hawaiian for group or team) is working on Part 2 of David Allen’s Getting Things Done, and this discussion is a focus on Chapter 4 Getting Started: Setting Up the Time, Space, and Tools.

Two workspaces

I wholeheartedly agree with GTD author David Allen when he explains that you should set up an office at home and at your workplace. I fell into doing this when I got my very first laptop and started to find I did more office-type work at home in my off hours than I did at work: In the hospitality industry you are normally out ‘on the floor’ versus in your office. Eight or ten hours go by and you haven’t even looked at your inbox much less process anything in it.

I kept my home office set up when my job changed and I entered the ‘executive suite’ because by then I had seamlessly integrated so much of my personal stuff into electronic files on my laptop (yeah, a big no-no, but I did it anyway ” working at home was supposedly a no-no too). I was traveling an awful lot at the time, and coincidentally tackling a major revamping of my personal finances, and those electronic files really helped with online bill-paying, phone calls to account managers, and other money matters while I was on the road.

At home the mere presence of an office was terrific for our household organization: All those random junk drawers with binder clips, rubber bands, plastic tape dispensers and other office paraphernalia throughout the house were cleaned up because they got consolidated in the efficiency of my home office for the whole family. Personal record keeping and document retrieval got so much easier. For instance, instead of collecting shoe boxes of photos needing to go into albums, they were filed, organizing everything so much better for when I actually sat down and did the albums.

Allen cautions, “Don’t share space.” (page 90). I agree with him when it comes to having a personal work space in the home office. However as a mom who is the unofficial ‘household organizer,’ central shared filing which everyone understands and respects saves you an awful lot of work. Let’s be honest: you can get away with a certain amount of dictatorship at home when you’re the parent.

Designing work space for function

However I admit that I ended up with these two work spaces versus designing them. In reading GTD I’ve now begun to design them to work better, a la one of my very favorite Covey concepts: Begin with the End in Mind.

One of my reading habits is that I usually speed-read a book first, and then go back to more slowly studying it. Allen’s book is one in which jumping ahead can really help you. In the conclusion of GTD, Allen says this:

“To consistently stay on course, you’ll have to do some things that may not be habits yet: 1. keep everything out of your head; 2. decide actions and outcomes when things first emerge on your radar, instead of later; and 3. regularly review and update the complete inventory of open loops of your life and work.”

The numbering in the quote is mine: These three behaviors have become the criteria for me when I look at my work spaces and decide how I need to make them most functional. For instance I need much more working space when it comes time for my weekly reviews.

If you have not yet finished your reading of GTD, I highly recommend you skip to the Conclusion of the book and read what Allen shares there as his “final tips for moving forward.”

The concept of hard boundaries

David Allen talks about hard boundaries in reference to the ‘hard landscape’ of your calendar. It is also a great concept to apply to your work spaces. This is so simple and yet so helpful! Be brutally honest with yourself when it comes to the hard boundaries you should respect between reference, supplies, decorations, tools or the items you need for project support.

This was a significant aha! moment for me in reading GTD when it came to new so-called ‘desk organizers’ that I had purchased along the years because of their decorative qualities in my office versus their productivity functionality. Now I’ve gone to the other extreme, in that my office tools can look pretty ugly as long as they work well.

Is there a 3rd workspace for you?

If you travel as much as I do, you’ll likely find you also need a third work space: a portable office.

That last sentence is how I probably would’ve started writing this section a few weeks ago. Now I appreciate how carefully Allen chose his words when he wrote it this way in his book:

“If you move around much, as a business traveler or just as a person with a mobile life-style, you’ll also want to set up an efficiently organized micro-office-in-transit.”

Today I don’t know anyone in business who doesn’t have a mobile life style IF they are effectively networking and building professional relationships as they develop their own personal brand with a free-agent, brand-called-Me Inc., make-myself-forever-marketable mentality. Now I consider ‘travel’ anytime I have to step outside of my house.

One example: the Tickler file, i.e. the 43 Folders. In my home office (now my ‘mother ship’ since I and everyone else in my ‘ohana in business is self-employed) I’ve taken Allen’s recommendations pretty completely; manila folders, labeler and all. However for my O‘ahu office #2 I purchased two Pendaflex Expanding Files (1 which is 1-31, and 1 which is Jan-Dec), finding that a) there was much less in them, and b) I never needed to carry the files separately.

When I thought of how I’d use the 43 Folders when traveling, I only purchased another Pendaflex Expanding File that is numbered 1-31, and it became my all-purpose 43 31 Folders Ticker file in actual use, with the numbers corresponding to the day of my travel. It normally sits in my hotel room and I pull out the day’s work I need. If I do need it, it’s easy to carry with me. Everything in it eventually gets processed out when I return to my other two office work spaces.

During my travel, (and again, that might mean the Pendaflex sits shotgun to me in my car) information pertinent to a particular day gets filed in that day until I get home to process it — such as expense receipts and business cards I’m handed at different speaking engagements. In other words, it then turns into a portable inbox. It really speeds up the processing of stuff when I return to my home office versus before where I dumped everything into my inbox — now the whole pendaflex goes into my inbox for my next weekly review.

Share your tips

If you have some ideas to share, please do add them here for us today. Let’s see if we can collect some cool, time-tested tricks on the ultimate office work spaces. How have the coaching of both David Allen and Stephen Covey influenced your office organization and functionality so you are most productive?


  1. Susanne Nyrop says

    My personal space. I work from home so that’s my best place to be. There are three book shelves with only those books that I find are relevant for my professional life, the rest are stored in our big room downstairs. My binders are neatly organized but I only use the later ones, the rest will have only sort of historical value to me, for the time being, but now and then an artcile that was flied long ago cound be of good inspiration.
    I know I have collected too many piles of print out articles and internet notes, mixed a bit too messy with personal mind maps and unfinished odds and ends. But at least I’m so proud of my multiple tables – two of them are on wheels, and one is foldable and can be stored underneath my big desk, that is very flexible!
    I have room for two computers (one of which I only keep because I often use the screen as a secondary one for my laptop, a printer and my radio and CD player. And ecah time I have a new major task to finish, I can clean up every clutter on these tables, they’re almost empty once a week when we do our traditional, basic house cleaning. And, to prepare myself for tomorrow’s work, I find the most important material, look through it and place it in stacks on the side table. Together with coloured paper for special purposes and those ubiquitous yellow stickers, and my digital iCalendar with notes, URLs and emails – these are my arms for getting things done, little by little…
    That’s the actual situation

  2. says

    Aloha kaua e MWA3P hui,
    Another note on those Expanding Pendaflex Files:
    The 3rd kind offered is the A-Z File, and this is great to get if you are inbetween your present work space set-up and the nirvana that Allen encourages us to achieve in a weekend’s “block of time to initialize this process” (Setting Aside the Time, paperback page 87). Read One Alpha System on page 98 and you’ll immediately understand what I mean.
    When I went to Office Max for my first shopping trip I bought all 3 types just in a “what the heck, I might need it” kind of moment, and turns out that A-Z reference file got filled up the fastest in my transition.
    I really resisted dumping all my open loops in one inbox at first, unless I had done something with them, and the A-Z organizer has been a godsend for me when I start to process.
    There are so many head-nodding, “yep, been there” moments in the reading of Allen’s book, that I encourage you to do whatever you can right away so you start getting some immediate results: Keep your excitement about the project alive. Don’t wait for that magic purging weekend to start. What was it Goethe said?
    Lose this day loitering, ‘Twill be the same story Tomorrow — and the next more dilatory. Then indecision brings its own delays, and days are lost lamenting overdays! Are you earnest? Seize this very minute! What you can do, or dream you can – begin it! Courage has genius, power and magic in it. Only engage, and the mind grows heated. Begin it, and the work will be completed.
    Wise, wise words.

  3. says

    Rosemary had an office in our home in Cleveland. She kept it exclusivly for home use, never bringing work home from the bank. She used a roll top desk.
    Now in Tampa, she is working from home. As you cannot get even a laptop on the roll top, we got another desk for her. Now she keeps all homestuff on the roll top and work stuff on the other.
    I began using GTD in the Fall of 03. I jumped in hook line and sinker, buying the necessary folders and labeling guns. I petered out in the Spring of 04 when I changed jobs.
    Although I haven’t had the opportunity to participate here in the last month or so, I am excited that Rosa is doing this.

  4. says

    Be a Deskless Manager: Ho‘o!

    ~ Originally published on Say “Alaka‘i” April 2009 ~ Be a Deskless Manager: Ho‘o! My business has not quite reached that five-year mark, yet so much has changed since I was last in corporate life, one of many managers in…