It took me a long time to figure out how to build my office space as a writer and book editor. As any artist knows, you want your office to give you the right creative mental space while also ridding yourself of distractions and ensuring maximum efficiency so that you can actually produce. But, chances are, you’re working with a small space, a small budget, or both.
When I first put out my shingle as an independent book editor, my office was in a corner of my living room, in a space otherwise unused only because of the strange shape of my New York apartment. I did not have an extra room, a door, or even a divider to put between myself and the rest of the living room; if my roommate at the time stayed home sick from work, she had to deal with my loud FaceTime meetings (Alex, once again, thank you).
I made a few mistakes when I built that first office space, all of which led me to work more often than not in coffee shops around the city. I tried renting an office space for a few months, but between New York’s skyrocketing real estate prices and the fact that my staff is remote, I didn’t find it a good use of my company’s money.
Eventually my boyfriend moved in, my roommate moved out, and suddenly I had a whole free room to build as my office. And this time, I spent hours researching how to do it right, learning about everything from feng shui to various creative and efficiency techniques. What follows are my personal recommendations for building your best, most creative office space, whether you have a corner of the living room or a whole room to yourself. Every single thing I purchased was the product of a lot of research, so whenever I could I made sure to give you the exact links to things I purchased in case you’d like to get them for yourself. Browse away, and please, write to me with any questions or suggestions, I want to hear from you!
Part 1: What You Need
1. An ergonomic office chair that makes you feel like a boss
For my first office, I bought a very cool round office chair from IKEA. It looked awesome, but you know what it wasn’t? Comfortable. And you know what happened? Serious back pain. You’re going to be sitting in this baby for hours and hours at a time; do yourself a favor and make a good investment in your office chair. Mine is made by La-Z-Boy and isn’t even that expensive. Plus it’s got this wonderful lumbar thing that supports you when you sit up, but moves backwards when you lean back. Win/win.
Bonus: If you’ve got the floor space, incorporate another chair or a couch that’s more lounge-style for days when you don’t want to sit at your desk for hours on end. I personally have a cozy editing chair that I use when I want a less stuffy feel to my work setup. This chair doesn’t need to be a high cost item for your space, it can really just be something you find at a thrift shop. Regardless of what you choose, though, good seating is a must!
2. Warm yet bright lighting in all four corners of your space
I’m the first to admit that I’m a little fanatical about lighting. I love a good lamp, and overhead lights are my enemy. So when I set out to design my office, I made sure to light my space accordingly. You want to make sure that you don’t have anything too harsh, which is why I love warm, bright light, but you also want to make sure that the space is well-lit. I’m a big fan of lighting the walls rather than the space; I replaced my overhead light with track lighting that highlights my bookshelves and editing chair, and then I put simple stick-on track lighting underneath the shelf above my desk. Get some good reading light near your editing chair (if you have one), and try and get some natural lighting in if you can. I replaced my blinds with dark wooden ones so that when the sun streams in in the morning, I can angle them so that I’m not blinded at my desk.
Bonus: Dimmer switches are your new best friend. Bright for when you’re cleaning or need to focus, subdued for when you’re reading or working, dimmer switches can let you turn an otherwise harsh lamp into one that works for your space. You can buy them anywhere and install them right in your light switch if you want to dim your overhead light, or you can buy simple plug-in dimmers to turn any lamp cozy.
3. Synced, well-placed technology
In the great debate of laptop vs. desktop, I come out in the middle. Get yourself a laptop for flexibility, but then use an HDMI cord to connect to an external monitor. I went ahead and replaced my Logitech keyboard and mouse with the Apple magic keyboard and touchpad so that they sync wirelessly with my Macbook Pro, and then I saved a bit by getting a cheaper external monitor. You can even use a TV if you’d like; you’re just using the screen, so it doesn’t really matter. All that matters is that your laptop is strong enough to do everything you need it to do; you don’t really need to splurge on an iMac if it’s not in your budget.
And then we come again to that fun little word, ergonomics, aka I’m going to save you from spending thousands at the chiropractor’s. When you’re typing, your elbows should bent at just about 90 degrees…any higher and you’re going to be killing your back. My desk is a little high, so even when I raised my chair to its highest, I still had to reach up a bit to get to my keyboard. I was in all kinds of pain until I invested in this great keyboard tray that screws into the bottom of my desk and is fully adjustable (it even swivels!). I was then able to lower my chair to a normal height and type like a human instead of a pterodactyl, and I’ve been golden ever since (side note, did you know this is what pterodactyls sound like?? I had to look up how to spell it and holy hell).
4. Plants and mirrors
Creativity requires energy, yet it also requires solitude. Bringing plants and mirrors into your space will bring the life and energy needed to get your work done. I prefer to do a mix of real and fake plants that way the maintenance and upkeep is low, but I still get the bright, but relaxing effect that having plants can bring to a room. Mirrors have a similar effect on an office space, with the added bonus of making the room appear larger.
Part 2: What You Don’t Need
1. Too many personal photos
Often when decorating an office space, the first thing we do is put up pictures of friends and family. While this feels like the best way to make your office feel like home, it can actually hurt your productivity. Most creative professions (heck, any profession for that matter) require that we step outside of ourselves and be someone slightly different from who we are in our personal lives. It’s hard to be professional while staring at a million pictures that draw some kind of emotional reaction from you. For this reason, I recommend only allowing yourself one to two photos of loved ones in your space so that you can stay you focused on tasks at hand. Instead, try adding decor and items that represent your personal taste, but don’t have too much emotional attachment to them. I used to paper my office with photos, but now I only have one photo on my desk and decorate with personal items instead (for example, my grandmother’s wooden elephants and a gold foil print of New York, below).
2. For everything to be on your desk
You know that simple joy of sitting down at a coffee shop to get work done? You could be the most overwhelmed person in the world, but if you just sit down at an empty table, it’s suddenly all manageable.
The same can, and should, be true for your office. It’s our natural instinct to want to put everything, from staplers to pens to three-hole punches, right on our desks, but eventually this practice will encourage clutter and consume your mental energy. Instead, take a page out of professional chefs’ handbooks and practice mise-en-place (translation: “put in place”). A fantastic chef should, at all times, know exactly where each spice, knife, rag, and spatula is (assuming, of course, that those are the things our chef uses the most). You might blindfold this chef, but she would still be able to cook you the same meal. She knows where each and every thing is, so she wastes no time searching for them when the timer is running.
Organize your office in the same way, where every pen goes into its exact same place. Make a list of the items you use more than once in a day; those items belong in the most coveted spot on your desk. Are you right handed? Your pen cup belongs on the right side of the desk. Do you print a lot? Your printer should be close enough that you don’t have to get up to fetch your pages. Next, list out the things you use frequently, but not more than once a day. For me, that’s my stapler, my tape dispenser, and my three-hole punch. Those go above my desk, in a open cabinet so that they’re still easily accessible, but not cluttering my work space. Reference notes also go above my desk, on a magnetic strip. Finally, there are the items you rarely use, like your shredder and extra printer paper. Those should be completely out of sight, either under your desk or away in a closet somewhere. Your main rule of thumb is this: If you can see it, you should be using it, and you should know exactly where it goes in your office. You should never waste time searching for extra staples or for that spare set of scissors. And at the end of each day, clean off your desk so that you can start the next day fresh.
3. For things to be on the floor
Small space or not, floor space is sacred. Always build up, not out, and your office will be as uncluttered as your soon-to-be-zen mind. Reference books you’d like to have on hand? Get some open shelves and drill them into the wall above your desk. Want more plants in your space? Buy wall planters (as seen earlier) and put succulents in them. Need more space to brainstorm? Buy a whiteboard and get it up on the wall (I just bought this glass whiteboard and I LOVE it). Bottom line: The more floor space you have, the more spacious it will feel, and the easier it will be to navigate through both mentally and physically.
So what will you try in your office space? I want to hear about what works and what doesn’t; shoot me an email, leave a comment here, or write to me on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter and tell me all about it.