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Productivity and Ergonomics: The Best Way to Organize Your Desk

Melanie Pinola
Melanie Pinola / July 19, 2016

When you spend hours at your desk every day, even the smallest features of your workspace–such as the position of your monitor or the height of your chair–can greatly affect your productivity and even your health. Here's what science says about the best way to set up your office for ergonomics and productivity.

Your workspace shouldn't wear you down every day, but that's what uncomfortable chairs, messy desks, and poor lighting do–even though you might not notice these things day after day. With a few adjustments, however, you can improve your working environment and keep your desk from killing you.



Infographic: How to Set Up Your Desk for Productivity and Ergonomics

The illustration below offers a bird's eye view of some of the most important elements in a healthy and productive office. Keep reading below for more details, research, and suggestions. And feel free to share this graphic with others, on your site or on your social networks. Download or see the full-size image.

Desk Infographic
An overview of the basics of a productive and ergonomic workspace

The Essential Elements of an Ideal Workspace

ideal workspace
Even small tweaks to your desk setup can make a big difference in your productivity and well-being

Don't underestimate how much your surroundings can influence your productivity. One study by Herman Miller found that workplace design had "a small but consistent and real influence" on workers' performance–increasing productivity as much as 16% and job satisfaction by 9%. Consider your desk setup across the five features below to get more work done during the day with less effort.

Lighting

The quality of lighting in your office can affect your mood and your well-being. Poor lighting–whether it's dim lighting or harsh lighting from overhead fluorescent lights–can cause eye strain, stress, and fatigue. Conversely, the best kind of light you can have in your office is natural light.

As early as 1979, researchers have advised that natural light and natural views tend to reduce stress, improve mood and morale, decrease anxiety, and aid concentration. In a 2014 study, researchers at Northwestern Medicine and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that workers who had more light exposure through windows at the office slept better and longer at night. They also tended to get more physical activity compared to workers whose offices didn't have windows.

The reason why it's so important to get regular exposure to daylight? Sunlight helps our bodies maintain our internal "clocks" or circadian rhythms–which affects our sleep and energy–as well as our brains' release of serotonin, a hormone that helps us feel focused and calm.

If you can control where your office is, choose a room with a window to get this boost from the sun. If you don't have control over lighting at your workplace and aren't lucky enough to have your desk near a window (much less a corner office surrounded by windows), try getting outside more for your breaks and see if you can get a desk lamp that simulates daylight.

Another thing to consider when it comes to lighting: The position of light sources. You want enough uniform light that you can work without squinting, but also make sure lighting isn't causing glare on your monitor. For that reason, don't sit with your back to a window unless you can shade it and don't sit facing a window either because that will make reading a monitor difficult. Also, if you use a task lamp at your desk, position it so the bottom of the lampshade is at about the height of your chin when it's on, This Old House recommends.

Finally, you know those Edison lightbulbs that are all the rage these days? Looking at a bare lightbulb like that (or other types of lightbulbs) might actually be good for your creativity.

Plants

Can plants help you do your work? It might sound silly, but, yes, a plant or two in your office could improve your productivity and happiness. Scientists had found that indoor plants prevent fatigue during attention-demanding work. Even just having a window view of live greenery can be restorative and keep us focused. If you can't see a plant from your desk, you might be missing out on a 15 percent productivity boost, according to psychologists at Exeter University.

So nature is good for you, but what if you're not good at caring for plants? Don't worry; I'm in the same boat and somehow have managed to keep a plant alive. The secret: Buy a peace lily. This forgiving plant requires little sunlight to survive and you only have to water it when the soil is dried out. But the best thing about this plant is that it shames you into watering it when it needs this by drooping miserably–and then after you water it, the plant perks right back up. Resuscitating your plant every week might give you a small but notable sense of accomplishment.

Like many other plants, peace lilies are also great for cleaning the air, according to NASA, so you can work in a fresh environment and get that productivity boost at the same time. Cacti and aloe plants are other low-maintenance plants to consider. If you have a green thumb, though, any plant will do to improve your workspace.

Temperature

At some offices, employees regularly battle each other for control of the thermostat. If this describes your working environment, here's some research to help you end the battles once and for all–at least, if you often feel chilly. Cornell University researchers found that by increasing office temperature from 68 to 77 degrees Fahreinheit (20° to 25° Celcius), workers' typing errors fell by 44 percent, and they were able to type 150 percent more.

Perhaps this plays a part in why many people feel less productive in the summer. Could it be the frigid air conditioning?

Although the temperature study doesn't account for personal preference, try experimenting with your office temperature if you can and see what happens. If you can't control the temperature in your office, there's always the "wear a sweater" option or getting a small fan if your workspace is too warm.

Sound

There are good sounds to listen to while working, and then there's noise. Too often we deal with the latter. At the office–especially in open offices–other people's conversations and even keyboard clicks can be a constant distraction. Working from home, you might have to contend with the sound of your neighbor's dog barking, noisy landscapers and construction workers, and maybe even the sound of regular traffic outside your door. And then there are the notifications you might get from your mobile phone that interrupt what you're doing.

It's hard to drown all that out when you're trying to work. A good pair of noise-canceling headphones could help. Pair it with soothing background music from Jazz and Rain, your favorite video game soundtrack playlist on YouTube, or coffeehouse-like background chatter from Coffitivity. The latter taps into research that suggests ambient noise can increase creativity.

Color

Color psychology is a fascinating field of study. McDonald's uses red and yellow because they're high-energy colors that stimulate our appetites (read: make us eat more chicken nuggets). Starbucks uses green to promote a sense of relaxation (read: convince you to chill in the coffeeshop). And your office colors might also be subtly influencing your work days.

Color psychologist Angela Wright explains how colors make us feel, think, and act:

  • Red is energizing and warming, stimulates our pulses, and can be perceived as aggressive
  • Blue can stimulate thought and aid in concentration and communication, but some might see it as cold and unemotional
  • Yellow is stimulating and lifts spirits, but the wrong tone of it can make you feel anxious
  • Green is a reassuring, balancing color, but, depending on how it's used, can be perceived as bland
  • Violet encourages contemplation, but too much of it could bring about too much introspection
  • Orange is stimulating and fun, but too much of it can be overwhelming
  • Pink is soothing but too much can be draining
  • Gray is neutral, psychologically, and can be depressing unless the right tone is used
  • Black is serious and sophisticated, but can be heavy
  • White gives a heightened perception of space but can be a strain to look at
  • Brown is a serious color, but warmer than black and is solid and supportive

Keep these color meanings in mind when choosing paint for your home office and even when shopping for desk accessories. Desk supplies in coordinating colors could help you stay focused instead of distracted by your desk.

How to Set Up Your Desk Ergonomically

ergo chairs
When it comes to ergonomics, one size does not fit all, as most offices like the one above suggest

In addition to those office design decisions, another critical consideration is your workspace's ergonomics–how efficiently and safely you can work at your desk and with your computer. It's about setting up your environment to keep you healthy and avoid problems such as repetitive strain injury (RSI), back pain, or even fatigue.

Corporate offices often enlist ergonomic consultants to set up employees' workstations to reduce the risk of employees getting injured and to keep them productive. But what if your company doesn't care about ergonomics or you work remotely (as all of us at Zapier do)? You'll need to think ergonomically for yourself. Here's what you should know.

The Ideal Desk Height

Your desk should ideally let you type on a keyboard with your arms and hands roughly parallel to the floor, your feet flat on the floor, and your legs fitting comfortably under the desk when sitting (you should be able to comfortably cross your legs under the surface). Like this:

Workstation Planner
Ergotron's Workspace Planner helps you find the proper measurements for a sitting or standing desk

Head to Ergotron's Workspace Planner (shown above) and enter your height to find the right desk measurements for you.

If your desk doesn't support this posture, you can invest in a keyboard tray, get a footrest, put the desk on risers, or simply try adjusting your chair's seat height.

Many desks today also have height-adjustable legs, rather than the fixed, typical 29 inches height, which is important because no one size fits all. Certified professional ergonomist Peter Budnick says on Ergoweb.com:

So, is 29 inches the correct height for an office desk? Absolutely not, unless you are “tall”, or unless you add a footrest, adjustable keyboard surface, and any other number of band-aids to modify the workstation to fit a majority of users. […]

Adjustable work surface technology exists. An adjustable work surface usually eliminates any need for an add-on adjustable keyboard tray; and eliminates the need for a footrest; and eliminates the need for a custom fitting session with the local ergonomist; and eliminates the need for maintenance to come by and re-adjust a 29 inch desk height to one more appropriate for the specific user. Plus, there can be productivity, quality and morale gains, as well as reduced discomfort, pain and injury, all of which contribute to the economic justification.

Some adjustable-height desks, such as IKEA's sit/stand desk or the pricier but electronically adjustable Jarvis Bamboo also allow you to switch between sitting and standing mode. This has many benefits, since scientists have connected sitting all day with everything from increased blood pressure to spine damage to heightened risk of dying. Standing all day has its health concerns as well, so alternating between the two seems to be the best recommendation so far. I and others who stand while we work believe we think better on our feet and find ourselves more active, at least, compared to constantly sitting. It's not for everyone, though, so before you invest in a standing desk, try raising your keyboard and monitor to the height recommended in Ergotron's Workspace Planner first–you could use reams of paper, a sturdy box, or anything else that'll get your gear to the proper height.

Ergonomic Chairs

After your desk, your chair is the most important piece of furniture in your office, especially if you sit in it for long work sessions. Unfortunately, shopping for a good office chair is about as easy as shopping for a mattress–so many options, at so many price points, and, again, no one size fits all. Also, manufacturers can slap the "ergonomic" adjective onto any product they want, including office chairs, so you can't go by that claim alone.

Here's what to look for in an ergonomic office chair:

  • Lumbar support: The curve in the back of the chair should support your lower spine, following the natural curve of your lower back.
  • Seat depth: Chairs that fit your body will allow you to sit comfortably with your lower back against the lumbar support while also leaving an inch or two between the back of your knees and the seat. Rule of thumb: while seated, see if you have three- or four-fingers' width distance between your legs and the edge of the seat.
  • Chair height: You should be able to adjust the height of the chair so your feet are flat on the floor or on a foot rest.
  • Arm rests: Armrests should be at the proper height so your shoulders aren't hunched and you can keep your arms parallel to the floor.
  • Recline-ability: Reclining in your chair, at about 135 degrees, may be better for your spine than sitting straight up at a 90 degree angle.
  • Material: This one's about preference, but some people want a mesh chair because they tend to get hot in other types of chairs. You also want a chair's material to be durable; cheap chairs' foam seats often wear out quickly.

The more adjustable the chair is in these areas, the more likely the chair will fit you like a glove and keep you comfortable all day long. High-end chairs will allow you to adjust the lumbar support firmness and position, adjust the seat depth, and more.

The Wirecutter recommends testing out a chair for at least 30 minutes in a setting similar to how you'd be using it–for example, using the chair in front of a desk and typing on a keyboard. Their top pick for desk chair is the Steelcase Gesture ($994 on Amazon) because of its high adjustability or the IKEA Markus ($199 from IKEA) if a $900+ chair is not in your budget. There are even cheaper ergonomic chairs out there, but before you go cheaper, remember that your office chair an investment in your well-being and, generally, it's best to spend your money where you spend your time. Either way, make sure the chair you pick supports your body fully.

Proper Monitor Placement

How you set up your monitor matters too. Poor placement could mean eye strain, improper posture, shoulder problems, and more. Here are monitor placement guidelinesguidelines from the US Department of Labor's Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) to stay healthy in front of your monitor.

  • Keep your monitor or laptop screen between 20 and 40 inches in front of you. If the monitor is too far away, you might be forced to lean forward and no longer have back support. Too near and your eyes have to work harder to focus. You should be able to read all text comfortably while maintaining proper posture. If text is too small, zoom in.
  • Make sure the top line of the screen is at or below your eye level. If the monitor is too high, you'll be forced to strain your head, neck, and back. At the same time, your downward viewing angle to see the entire screen shouldn't be greater than 60 degrees.
  • Don't tilt the monitor more than 10 to 20 degrees. More than that and objects on the screen might be difficult to read.
  • Place the monitor perpendicular to windows. This will help avoid eye-straining glare.

If you experience eyestrain, dry eyes, or headaches after long hours staring at your monitor, consider specially tinted computer glasses, such as Gunnars, or getting anti-reflective coating for prescription glasses, if you wear them. Remember to take breaks for your eyes, too: The 20-20-20 rule reminds us to look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds every 20 minutes to protect your eyes.

Keyboard and Mouse Placement and Types

Finally, let's talk about your computer keyboard and mouse. These too have an ideal placement.

The keyboard should be close enough to your body so you can hold your elbows comfortably by your sides, preventing strain on your shoulders. As mentioned earlier, your keyboard should also be low enough that your arms are roughly parallel to the floor and your wrists are flat or angled downwards. Unfortunately, most keyboards are not ergonomically designed. They're angled so the back of the keyboard is higher than the front, causing our wrists to bend up to type on the keys.

One fix for this is to get a keyboard stand or tray that positions the keyboard pointing downwards. A cushy wrist rest (which is really for your palms) and wrist rest for your mouse will also provide more comfort and prevent your wrists from bending up.

Use a laptop? Because of the fixed keyboard and screen, it's tougher to get the ideal screen and keyboard placement at the same time. A laptop stand paired with an external keyboard could help you find the best balance ergonomics-wise.

If you want to invest in an ergonomic keyboard because you're already feeling wrist or shoulder strain or you're concerned about developing this pain, I recommend (after 150 hours of testing keyboards) the Microsoft Sculpt Ergo or the mechanical Matias Ergo Pro. In addition to being designed for the proper arm and wrist positions, these split keyboards help hold your wrists flat and your arms by your sides, reducing that forward hunch so many office workers suffer with. Ergonomic keyboards also separate or remove the number pad found in many other keyboards. That means you can keep the mouse closer to the keyboard and avoid stretching your arm out to the side too much to move the mouse.

As for your mouse itself, make sure it's a comfortable size for your hands. If it's too big or too small, you might end up bending your wrist in awkward positions. The Wirecutter has mouse recommendations for different needs, and there are also ergonomic mice and alternative input tools that could be more comfortable for you than traditional mice.

You can also help your wrists by simply typing less. Here's how to use text expanders to increase your productivity and keep you from re-typing common phrases.

Practice Proper Posture

Whether you stand or sit at your desk, and whether you use ergonomic computer gear or not, the best things you can do to stay healthy at your desk is to be more active during the day and regularly take stock of your posture. Take frequent breaks that incorporate moving around and stretching. Strengthen your core–tighten them slightly when sitting or standing–to avoid back pain and get your spine in the best, natural shape. Roll your shoulders back and sit up straight and tall (just like your mom told you to!).

How to Organize Your Desk

Organized desk
What you keep on your desk can affect your workflow

Everyone has their own workspace preferences. For some, a minimalist, clutter-free desk is best, while others thrive amidst piles of papers and tools surrounding their keyboards. (Tidy rooms have been linked to good habits while cluttered rooms seem to help people be more creative, a series of studies has suggested.) Regardless of which environment you prefer, a little organization or a system for your desk could help you better control your workday and keep you from wasting hours hunting for files or the tape dispenser.

Think of Your Desk Like a Cockpit

The cockpit on an aircraft puts all the flying controls and information panels needed within arm's reach for the pilot–and it leaves out extraneous information or tools that could be distracting. Ideally, your workspace would function similarly.

For the most efficient, distraction-free use of your space:

  • Keep only the things you use daily within reach. This could be a pen and a notebook, your phone charging stand, your water bottle or coffee cup, and a microfiber cloth for cleaning your phone screen and monitor.
  • Store everything else off of your desk. Store supplies you might need weekly or monthly, such as scissors or extra Post-It notes, in your desk drawers; paper files you don't touch regularly in their own file cabinet or box; and things you use once in a blue moon, such as printer photo paper, as far away from your desk as you like.
  • Keep personal decorations to a minimum. Personal photos, travel souvenirs, and other objects bring us joy when we look at them. Too many of them, however, could interrupt your train of thought even more often than co-workers or your family members do. Try limiting personal decorations to just 3 items or less–and moving any others to outside your direct line of sight. Whatever you do, make sure everything you keep on your desk is either useful, necessary, or brings you joy–criteria for clearing out any kind of space.
  • Hide supplies and tools strategically behind your monitor or under your desk. You can still have things you need in reach but hidden from sight. You can mount an external hard drive, for example, to the back of your monitor, as well as cables, pens, and more. The same is true for stashing stuff under the desk top or at the edges of your desk. Use brackets to mount a router or hard drive under your desk. Stick a 3M Command Hook to the side of your desk to hang your headphones. Mount a powerstrip and/or your computer tower to the underside of your desk top to keep them off the floor.
  • Clear cable clutter with ties and other tools. Search for "cable clutter" and you'll find a ton of cheap tools, such as velcro ties that stick to the underside of your desk top, to more elaborate DIY projects (many involving pegboard).

Take a few minutes at the end of each workday to remove the things that have somehow strayed onto your desk and don't belong there. A cleared desk will give you a fresh start the next morning and keep the momentum going throughout the day.

Set Up a Workflow for Your Desk

You probably already have a solid workflow for your projects and your apps. Your desk is another tool for more productive work–if you set up that unassuming rectangle of space to store and process information on it efficiently.

In his book How to Set Up Your Desk, Matt Perman offers a simple system: Move through projects on your desk from left to right. Keep the right side of your desk free and store the majority of your supplies and incoming papers on the left. As you start to deal with paperwork or other items that need your attention, move them to the right and then finally off your desk at the end of the day (or back to the left to resume working on in the morning).

You can also use this system on your computer desktop, I think. If you work with multiple windows or monitors, keep your "inbox"–email app, Twitter app, Slack app, tabs of articles you need to reference, etc. on the left. Keep the apps and tabs you're directly working on in the right half of your monitor. Move things left to right to visually organize your projects. It's like Kanban boards, but with paper on your desk or tabs in your browser.

Another tip from desk-optimizing tip from Perman: Set up your desk the same way both at home and at your office (if you often move between offices) to minimize friction switching from one environment to the other. Ideally, that means the same type of desk and same type of chair, as well as the same placement of your file cabinet and same desk accessories.

Both of these ideas might seem extreme or overly structured for some people, but you can still take the general idea behind the tips to improve the way you work in your office, wherever that might be.


Your workspace should be specific to you. It's where you do your life's work (or at least the work that helps pay the bills). It should support both your well-being and how you work best. The tips above will hopefully help you optimize your desk setup so you have the best work days ever–and also have the energy to have a life after work too.

Title photo by MKBHD via Reddit. Desk infographic by Owl illustration Agency / Jan Sramek. Desk essentials image by Radek Grzybowski. Plants image by [J. Nathan Matias](https://www.flickr.com/photos/natematias/6333436968/]. Chairs image by Startup Stock Photos. Organized desk via Vadim Sherbakov.

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