Tips for Technologists #2: Setting Up Your Workspace

In Tech Digest by Nick Ruffilo

Tips for Technologists is a series aimed at teaching you to engage with technology in best way possible. You can see all the Tips for Technologists articles here.

By Nick Ruffilo

Tip Level of Difficulty: Basic

Having the proper work environment is a simple thing, but key towards becoming a better technologist. I will discuss a few key concepts then talk about some specific examples (using my work environment as an example.)

Know where all your tools are & keep the most frequently used ones close
If you use a program often, have it in on the extreme left side of your application bar (Mac) or one of the first items in your start menu (or clearly on your desktop). Have a logical organization structure for your most commonly used tools. You don’t want to waste time looking for a pen, paper, application, or files that you commonly use.

Digital is not always quicker
I’m a big fan of whiteboards. That and physical notebooks for meetings. For the past 15 years I’ve experimented with bringing laptops to meetings, bringing PDAs to meetings, recording meetings (audio), using a tablet, using a tablet + keyboard, and what I’ve found is that the most efficient device has been a paper notebook and a pen (with a backup in case it runs out of ink). Even when I’ve had to retype my notes to e-mail to a group, it has been easier. Drawing diagrams in Word or Google docs is nearly impossible, but is often required.

I also do a great deal of brainstorming. Keyboard/mouse is not how I feel most creative. I grab my lap-sized whiteboard and a few markers and do my brainstorming there. If I have something I wish to share, I take a picture and e-mail that (or save it). Also, for micro-task management, I’ve often written my to-dos on post-it notes and put them on my monitor or desk so that I can always easily see the tasks. An added benefit is that, when complete, it is much more gratifying to throw a task in the physical recycling bin than it is to click a checkbox on a project management application.

Have an organization structure and stick to it
A good organization will have good guidelines. For example, there will be a global shared drive that has a specific organizational structure and a user-only drive which should mirror the structure of the global. But, if that is not the case (or you work for yourself) it is key for you to have a system for storing both physical and digital files. I’ve seen many different setups, but a few tips are:

  1. Have a temporary area/folder: Put things that “expires” or are useful for only a few days here. Then, when things get cluttered, you know that you can simply take everything in that area (or most things) and simply trash them.
  2. Don’t file things by Date unless it actually matters: Meeting notes or design sketches from “January 2012” are much less useful than sketches about “Product X.”
  3. Have a weekly task to “clean up”: Friday afternoon or Monday morning carve out 1 hour of your time to clean up. Tidy your desk and move around files that you may not have put in the right place.

Think about your workspace and maximize it to the job at hand
Utilizing multiple desktops and multiple monitors on your computer is the quickest and easiest way to increase productivity. On Mac, this is built in (System Preferences->Spaces/Expose in 10.6 or lower. 10.7 or higher it is automatically on) and in windows you need to install a 3rd party application (here’s how). With a simply keystroke you can switch between a grouping of open applications. Instead of having to constantly minimize/maximize applications, you can simply move between the desktops that you need. Beyond logically grouping things, this increases performance by removing distraction. Here is how I have my setup, and why (I also have dual monitor setup).

  1. Desktop 1 — Communications: Left monitor gets Twitter/iMail (work). Right monitor gets Skype & Chrome which has my personal e-mail & news articles I want to read. Besides work e-mail, this is my “reward” desktop. When I’ve done good work and start to feel burned out, I come here, tweet a bit, catch up on some news, check my personal e-mail, and check my work e-mail.
  2. Desktop 2 — Code: Left monitor gets my IDE (PhpStorm) and a few terminal windows (open to the servers I need to access). The right monitor gets Firefox (my browser of choice for testing because of Firebug), and UltraEdit (an amazing text editor).
  3. Desktop 3 — Empty: I leave nothing open so that I can see all the files/folders on my desktop. I can quickly find a file I need or see something that saved to my desktop. I will open a finder window or two, but always close it when I’m done.
  4. Desktop 4 — Photoshop: Left Monitor — Photoshop. I don’t use it often, but I give myself the entire screen real estate for it.
  5. Desktop 5 — Music: I leave iTunes open here. I actually control my music through my keyboard (I have a play/pause/next/previous button on the keyboard – saves SO much time). I rarely actually need to go to iTunes to do anything, which is why it is the furthest away.

As a note with multiple desktops, you can use ctrl-left/right to switch between desktops quickly.

Having two monitors is a quick (and relatively cheap) way to double your usable space on your computer. The major advantage is to have static/reference content on one monitor while your work on another. This allows you to quickly look back/forth instead of having to alt-tab back and forth. Also, when programming, it lets you code and preview at the same time in full size.

I will outline my desk and setup further in the discussion. We also want to hear about your setups.

About the Author

Nick Ruffilo

Nick Ruffilo is currently the CIO/CTO of He was previously Product Manager at Vook and CTO of BookSwim.