Wouldn’t it be nice to create a space this picturesque?

6 Tips for Setting Up Your New Home Office When You Have No Room to Spare

Working from home is a dream. Trading in a claustrophobic cubicle for a spacious home office. Three years ago, that dream became my reality, or so I thought. Working from home in a postage stamp-sized city apartment? That’s a little less dreamlike. Forget having a separate room to turn into an office, I didn’t even have an alcove. My home office was a mere 25 square feet on one side of my living room.

Three years and two apartments later, I’ve figured out how to separate work space from living space and make the most of my minimal square footage. Here are 6 tips to help you set up your home office when space is in short supply:

1. Designate things “work only”

The most important aspect of a home office is that it feels like you are at work and not at home. That’s a psychological distinction more than a physical one. The fastest way to achieve that feeling is to designate certain things “work only” — a chair, a mug, a shelf. As a rule, only use work things when you’re working, even though they’re still there when you’re not working.

The first purchase I made for my home office was My Blue Chair. It is my ideal chair in every way, but I only sit in it while I’m working. Sure, when I’m not working, sometimes my husband sits in it. It is, after all, right next to our couch. That’s ok. The rule does not apply to other people, it’s not their office. It’s mine. The upside of this tactic is that every time I sit in My Blue Chair, I feel like I’m at work. My brain powers on, the expectation of productivity flows through my fingers and encourages me to focus. It’s an unconscious response to the office I’ve created and you can develop that trigger, too.

2. Get creative

Part of the joy of working from home is eschewing the traditional office environment, including traditional furniture. Use your freedom to choose the furniture that really works for you. Did your last chair hurt your back? Try a balance ball chair, or even just the balance ball alone (I have this one). Do you hate being sedentary? Now’s your chance to try a standing desk. You could spend a few hundred dollars on a fancy desktop model or a completely adjustable Ikea desk, or you could find smaller, inexpensive options, like this adjustable laptop stand and this crafty bamboo laptop stand, to fit your space and budget.

My Blue Chair? It’s an arm chair, a club chair specifically, not an office chair by anyone’s estimation. It’s soft fabric and firm cushions are comfortable enough for me to sit with my laptop for hours. The flat arms work perfectly as a mouse pad. I accomplish more with less back pain than any desk chair I’ve ever had the misfortune to sit in. Increased productivity and reduced back pain can’t be wrong.

3. Make everything dual purpose

The best way to feel like something takes up less space it to have it serve more than one purpose. Try a storage ottoman. Mine serves as both an ottoman and the safe housing for my second monitor. It also becomes side table (this kind has a tray built in) or extra seat when guests come over.

You can find a second purpose for things you already own. There’s a filing cabinet in my home office space that is my hubby’s and totally unrelated to my work, but that’s how little space we have. The purpose it serves in my office: printer base. It is the perfect size and height to prop up my printer. Shelving or cube units are good candidates for this kind of multipurpose use.

4. Go digital

That filing cabinet is full of my hubby’s files because he’s old school. My files? All digital. Sign up for paperless statements and billing with every account possible. Invest in a scanner for everything else. When working from home, most of your correspondence will be digital anyway, including contracts. Whatever isn’t will be easier to maintain in the long run if it is scanned in, named using a consistent naming convention and archived.

What is a naming convention and why is it important? Well, scanners don’t name files in any meaningful way. Traditional filing systems include a label tab, the digital equivalent being a folder name. If you need to find a file, flipping through the pages in a manila folder is easy enough. You can glance at the pages, visually scanning for the desired file. In a digital folder? That’s not an option. Naming your files in a consistent manner allows you to identify what you’re looking for with a glance at the file name. You avoid having to open dozens, if not hundreds, of files to find the needle in the haystack. It’s as simple as deciding how to format the date, how to name your clients/accounts/jobs, and the order of that information in your file names. While this may not seem like it’s a part of setting up your home office, it is. Setting up your digital office enables you to minimize your physical footprint.

5. Back it up

Speaking of digital, do you know what is worth the space? An external hard drive. When you are your own business, losing your files can be a complete disaster. Either invest in a small hard drive, like this portable one, or a wireless drive connected through your home network, also called a cloud drive.

Why not just use Google Drive or Dropbox? They’re great for collaboration. I use and appreciate both services. However, there is a long (five years ago is an eternity in digital terms) history of cloud services losing or misplacing files. Privacy concerns are an added issue, especially in light of the recent legal changes regarding net neutrality. There is no better way to ensure that your files are properly maintained and not being compromised than to maintain them yourself.

6. Find some coworkers to talk to

Working from home can be isolating, but don’t let your home office become an isolation chamber. The best defense against social claustrophobia is a four-legged friend or two. Or maybe a two-winged friend. Or even a plant, if you’re allergic or have a pet-free lease. Don’t worry about appearances, studies have shown that talking to your pets is actually a sign of intelligence. Studies have also shown that seeing pictures of puppies and kittens increases focus and performance, so how much more productive would you be with an actual puppy in your midst?

I myself have two cats, and they’re the best coworkers I’ve ever had.

I hope my experience, born of trial & error, helps you set up your own personal work shangri la. If you’d like to add suggestion, please leave a comment. If you try mine out, let me know how it works for you in the comments.