I dreaded the idea of moving my office worse than a root canal, but it might turn out to be one of the leanest, greenest, and all-around best things we’ve done in a very long time. At first, we didn’t even consider moving home because we simply have too much stuff. We were in a 1,500 square foot office a few blocks away from our 747 square foot condo; how is it possible to condense every three square feet into one? But late one October evening, I asked Wanda “do you think we should consider the unthinkable?” And so it began.
Moving your office to an equal or larger space is easy: you just call the movers and then spend a day or two getting set up to work again. But combining 1,500 square feet of work space and 747 square feet of living space into 747 square feet of live/work space is much more difficult because you have to look at every single thing and say “do I really need this?” It’s an intense exercise in getting lean with living and working. We spent almost the entire month of January doing exactly that, and the three months since sorting it all out. Here are some things I learned, organized by simple rules of thumb… and you can click on the bird to tweet a rule of thumb if you like.
Get lean by ditching flab, which is anything I don’t need today.
We keep far too much stuff because we might need it someday, just as our body does with fat… storing calories because we might someday need them. When we moved, we gave loads of furniture, office supplies, and the like to MakeShop Miami, the maker group I wrote about here. They can use it today, while I only might need it someday.
Sentimentality is a hard master, forcing me to carry a heavy load just to see it again someday.
Take pictures. Good ones. They take up no space at all in your place, especially if you store them somewhere in the cloud. I had several architectural models I’d kept since school. At this point, they looked like models of ruins because the models were ruined. I also got rid of a lot of drawings from school, saving only my best work. I keep all my professional drawings, of course, but the idea that anyone would want to see my lesser work from school just doesn’t make sense.
Lean by lack is poverty, but lean by choice is highly treasured.
No diet is pleasant at the moment, but the leanness that comes afterward can be great fun. Getting lean has caused a massive 4-month hit to my productivity, but it promises to pay off for years to come.
Work somewhere too small to clutter.
I once thought a space large enough to clutter was a luxury but it’s really a burden. Here’s a huge point about the images in this post: Nothing was prepped for the shoot. All “straightening up” took 30 seconds or less. This is how we work. We can’t afford not to. And it saves a ton of time cleaning up every few months and searching for stuff every day in between.
Label stuff crisply and neatly. The smaller the space, the cleaner it needs to feel.
You can get away with hand-scrawled labels in a big office, but a small office needs to feel more composed. And where would you rather be working anyway: somewhere really sloppy, or somewhere that raises your spirits? When space is small it is more important to surround yourself with things that lift your spirits.
Shred with text left-to-right so ribbons of paper include only a digit or two of an account number.
I had every check I’d ever written, all the way back to when Wanda and I got married when I was just 19. Why? Because I’d never taken the time to recycle them. The IRS says you have to keep 7 years of records, but I kept everything back to when we moved to Florida, 11 years ago. I kept tax returns older than that… or at least the ones we had. We had three back-to-back floods in our office several years ago during a rooftop construction project, and they destroyed tons of drawings and company records, so what we have is really spotty. But in any case, don’t just recycle it. Identity thieves might be able to do something even if the record is really old, so make sure you shred everything before recycling.
Never lay junk mail anywhere except in the recycle bin… next, get on the National Do Not Mail List.
In a small space, you can’t afford to handle stuff twice… especially if it’s something you’re not planning to keep. So go straight to the recycle bin when you check your mail.
Have an invisible inbox. A massive stack of stuff to do is demoralizing.
See the white cabinet just to the right of my red chair in the image above? It’s an Ikea shoe cabinet, but it makes an awesome inbox. I can pivot it open, drop stuff in, and let it close… and it stays out of sight until I’m ready to work on it.
Keep things you use each day close around, but store further away what you use less often.
People say storage units are a sign of hoarding, and an indicator of not getting rid of enough stuff. Quite the opposite is true if you’re moving your office home. We have three workplaces: the stuff we need every day is in our two tiny workspaces at home. The stuff we need weekly is in a small storage unit a bike ride from home. The stuff we need monthly or less is in a larger but less expensive (per square foot) storage unit on the mainland. All three places are set up for work. Without the two storage units, working from home would be impossible for me.
Rinse junk mail instead of scrubbing. Don’t fear the inbox.
Ever notice how something you could have merely rinsed right after you used it takes some real scrubbing if you let it get hard and crusty? Junk mail is that way. It’s more important in a small space to not feel the walls closing in around me… including the digital walls of stacks of email. So every morning, I delete all the spam that my spam-catcher doesn’t catch, plus all the emails that aren’t exactly spam, but which I have no intention of ever answering. This leaves me with a small fraction of what greeted me when I first sat down, making it more likely that I’ll actually look at what’s left… and then respond to it.
The first act of simplification is discovering which things can do double-duty… or more.
Start with your furnishings, such as these bookshelves which are actually doing triple-duty.
Next, consider your equipment. Do you really need all of it? We’re now down to just two computers: Wanda’s laptop and mine.
Then think about your digital business. Dropbox doubles as a cloud server and a backup system for me, for example. But it’s expensive, so I’m storing several terabytes of files that don’t often change on a WD My Cloud server I can access from anywhere on earth. Before saving stuff there, however, I’m organizing it all. It’s something I should have done years ago, but I’m using the move home as the reason to finally get it done.
My digital setup is an entire post’s worth of material. I’ll put that post up soon on Useful Stuff. The essence, however, is this: when you work in a small space, your biggest enemy is clutter. Both physical and digital. So you need to spend an unusual amount of time simplifying things in the beginning. You’ll thank yourself countless times from that point forward.
Small equipment can go many places that are impossible for larger equipment.
We’re down to just one letter-size scanner, which sits snugly on the end of my desk. Our old printer was a beast, but our new one sits neatly on top of my drawing files.
Take advantage of the space under a desk that's over and around your feet.
Wanda stores copy paper on a shelf above her feet, and Buddy, Tanner, and Sally make a bed around her feet. I store stuff to either side of my feet because why should all that space be wasted?
Work in a garden room whenever possible. It’s a luxury most people never get to enjoy.
I work outdoors whenever the weather is good for several reasons. It’s a change of scenery. It’s a great pleasure. On a good day, the light is excellent. It’s easier to focus if Wanda is on the phone indoors. And it gets me acclimated to the local environment so I can live in season, often not needing to turn on the air conditioning when I return indoors. I’m working inside right now, for example, with only the breeze of the ceiling fan needed for comfort.
What It Means
There are obviously many lessons here, and I’ve just touched on some of them briefly. Is there anything you want to know more about? If so, I can blog about it in greater detail… or we could just talk about it here. What makes the most sense to you? And what do you wonder the most about, if you don’t already work from home?
Yes... post more details.
OK, I've finally finished this post! Lots of lessons learned from moving my office home. Have a look and let me know what I've missed... thanks!
Steve: Your writing echoes the experience – it's brief, but elegant…
The thing that I miss most about working from home is the luxury of being able to cook really good meals. I would routinely start a meal early, go back to work, and then finish the meal. It broke up the work day for me and gave me very valuable time for reflection about the current project. The only drawback was the very real need to deliberately take occasional days off--quite easy to skip!
Great post, Steve. It's surprising what we can do without.
WOW, Steve! Your writing is always on point but this is so true to home that I have to comment and say thank you for a wonderful, concise list . . . I have "room" to improve my space!
I could not agree with you more. I have had my business in a small room in our house since 2002 when started my small firm. I am working throughout the NW region from this small space. Meanwhile, I have been here each day (that I am not traveling) to greet our son when he comes home from school. He understands what I do at work, and sometimes joins be in my office to do drawings of his own. And when it's time to meet with colleagues, our dining room turns into a great working conference room. Grade A office buildings are overrated. Live/work is where it's at. Thank you for giving increased credibility and dignity to a traditional working and living model.
Look forward to sharing the spaces I've modified or created indoors/outdoors here in the last 12 months here in MPLS.
interested in reading more about your file organization/storage
Your Email comments are spot on, as are dealing with the awfulness of clutter that we just let fill up our lives for no good reason, really. Another thing I'm finding helpful to "lean" things up is only checking email twice per day. My goal is to get it down to three or four times per week. The 4 hour workweek book has a lot of great thoughts on this that you might enjoy.
How do you organize your books? I see labels on the spines. Library of Congress numbers or your own system?
Steve - Excellent as always. Related to "Breathe" - do you have any thoughts regarding a portable studio for those of us that like to take our work with us on adventures through a city / neighborhood from time-to-time? Does the packing list for a charrette trip = the packing list for a day trip to a new coffee shop in a new, unexplored neighborhood? How do the sketch pad and the laptop / tablet co-habitate . . . or do they? How does the backpack become a mobile version / extension of what you described above? Thanks!