Digital Spring Clean & Physical Work Environment Organization

April 1, 2024

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In this episode, we dig into three of my physical work environment tips and others that I crowdsourced from other working women on Instagram and via my email list. I also compiled all of the strategies in an article if you’d like to read it here. Enjoy!

Full Transcript

 Episode 48. Digital Spring Clean & Physical Work Environment Organization

Kelly Nolan: Before we dig into today’s episode, I wanted to let you know that I’m running a Digital Spring Clean. It’s a free five-day program where you’ll get a tip a day emailed to you designed to help spring clean your digital spaces (including your email inbox, your calendar, and your phone). You can sign up for free at the link in the show notes, which is www.kellynolan.com/springclean, which is really hard to say! Hope to see you in there!


[Upbeat Intro Music]

Kelly Nolan: Welcome to The Bright Method Podcast where we’ll discuss practical time management strategies designed for the professional working woman. I’m Kelly Nolan, a former patent litigator who now works with women to set up The Bright Method in their lives. The Bright Method is a realistic time management system that helps you manage it all, personally and professionally. Let’s get you falling asleep proud of what you got done today and calm about what’s on tap tomorrow. All right, let’s dig in!


Hey, hey! All right, so today we’re gonna talk about your work environment. Now, the physical work environment is what I’m talking about. Now, this is something I don’t talk about enough. I don’t talk about the importance of our physical environment when we’re trying to get stuff done, so I thought it would be kind of fun to today. I’ve talked about this in an email newsletter, and I actually crowdsourced other people’s tips on this front, so I’m gonna share my three tips that I shared there and then some of the tips that other people emailed in and sent to me on Instagram. So kind of fun. Hope it’s a fun mix-up but also really useful per usual.

Tip #1: Have a Dedicated Workspace,  But Be Open to Moving Around – 1:33

Okay, so kicking off my three tips. Our first is have a dedicated primary workspace but also move around if somewhere else is a better energy fit for you.

So when I practiced law, I had my own office where most of my non-meeting work happened. But when I had to do things like edit documents (like briefs), I would take a printout of that draft and edit it in a conference room. I would find any empty conference room I could on my floor or a different floor in our firm, and I would edit there. The change in scene helped me see the document with fresh eyes, which really upped my editing game. I found that was something that I really loved to do. Actually, writing this today was really helpful because I was doing some edits on something else that I was working on, and I printed it out, and I went downstairs to my dining room table, and I edited there instead of my office, and that really helped me.

Similarly, along those lines, I now run my business in Minnesota from our house, and I’m lucky enough now that we live in the Midwest and have a little bit more space than we did in California, that I have an actual office in our house, which is amazing and something that I craved for years and years and years when I worked out of our bedroom. And while I love working in my home office, there are still times that I find that sitting on the couch with a laptop is more my creative space.

I tend to do that more when I’m drafting Instagram posts or my email newsletter each week, anything that’s a little bit more creative of writing, I really like sitting on the couch with my  laptop with a cup of tea or coffee. It just feels a little more cozy, a little less formal, helps me really relax and just kind of get in the zone on the creative side.

So that’s another example of really switching up the scene. Even if you have your dedicated workspace, switching it up when you need that intellectual or creative freshness, like fresh eyes, that kind of feeling. All right?

Tip #2: Make Yourself Comfortable – 3:25

Number two is make yourself comfortable. We spend so many hours working, whether it’s at home, whether it’s in an office, whether we split between the two in a hybrid scenario. Whatever it is, there are so many hours that we are sitting at a desk somewhere. And so, I just want to think about ways that you can make yourself comfortable in those scenarios.

Now, when I was working in an office (especially in Boston, I can really still see it), I had this kind of Mary Poppins drawer of stuff that I loved having at my fingertips. It was a big file drawer, so a really massive drawer, and it included everything from a jar of peanut butter that I would use so that — we had a snack tray every afternoon, and I could go grab a banana or an apple off of it but then add peanut butter to it to make it more appealing. That was in there. I had a full set of makeup. I had a brush. I had deodorant. I had tights. I even had a blanket because if our office was freezing I’d put a blanket in my lap. I had a lot of random stuff in there.

And I had this little box on my desk too, probably — I’m so terrible at this stuff — maybe like a five-inch by five-inch little box cube, and in it I would put the real essentials that I used all the time, like Chapstick and eye drops and a glasses cloth and things like that. Having all of these things at my fingertips and just geared towards helping me with my own comfort as I’m sitting there and, like, my basic needs like the peanut butter jar, that kind of stuff, it really helped me be more comfortable. It helped save me, also, time getting up to go get all of that stuff if I needed it. It was really, really nice, and it just helped me stay focused so that I could also get out of the office faster.

Now, in my home office now, I don’t have a massive drawer because it’s also attached to my house, so I have my whole house of stuff here. But I still do love having the basics right at my fingertips. So Chapstick, lip color, hand moisturizer, Kleenex, a few water bottles, all of that kind of stuff is usually always on my desk. It really helps me kind of whenever I need anything I can just grab it, use it, and keep going. I don’t have to get up and go get all of these things. I also even have a little ceramic bowl that my mom made me. It’s tiny. This is another one that I’m bad at guessing, but maybe three inches wide. Whenever I bring up hot tea, I can put the hot tea bags in there. They dry out, and then I just throw them in the trash.

So really all that I’m saying here is think about the things that you want on or near your office and your home desk that allows you to have comfort at your fingertips and prevents you from needing to wander and get distracted when you need other things. Even if it requires buying a few extra Chapsticks, a whole other set of makeup to have in your office, whatever it might be, it can be really well worth it.

Now, I did crowdsource a bunch of things that people also kept in their office, and I’m gonna read some of them because I just think it’s really interesting to hear what other people do.

So Items that people have near their desk is:

  • A timer, a timer that’s not related to your phone that helps you. If you are having a hard time motivating, use a timer to help you motivate to do something just for 15 minutes. You’re like, “I’m gonna set a timer for 15 minutes. I just have to do it for that period of time, and then I can be done.”
  • Other people leave a work-specific water bottle that lives in the office.
  • Someone also shared that they like to finish a full 40 ounces of water by 10:00 AM before they let themselves have that second cup of coffee. (Which I think is really smart.)
  • Snacks, including chocolate.
  • A fleece jacket.
  • Nail clippers or a nail file. Someone said, “I like to use that nail file for global calls when I don’t have to take notes or have my camera on.”
  • Unsurprisingly, Chapstick.
  • Headphones or earplugs to help with sound. (A sound machine even.)
  • Band-Aids. (Very smart.)
  • A brush, deodorant. (Those are the things I said.)
  • Extra contacts.
  • Readers, a glasses cleaner kit.
  • A small sun lamp for cloudy, dreary days.
  • Cards in case I need to write a note to someone on my lunch and toss it in the mail. (Smart).
  • Hand cream.
  • Small Post-It Notes with reminders, like little quotes that someone loves.
  • A few random cards or notes from my kids so I can come upon them while going through a drawer occasionally, and they perk me up.
  • Someone else said, “I always keep a fork, knife, and spoon, or even a small airplane token gift of salt and pepper shakers for work lunches.”
  • A spare phone charger.
  • A phone cradle.
  • An extra set of earbuds for walks.
  • A pair of comfy shoes under my desk for those tough feet days.
  • Hair elastics.
  • All my favorite pens. Someone said she actually put decoy pens on the edge of her desk because people will steal her pens, so she keeps her favorite pens in a drawer. (Which I think is so smart and just embracing reality.)
  • Extra shoes and a business suit. (That is something I did too when I was practicing law. I would keep a full suit with heels and everything. Actually, I kept all my heels at work and would just commute in comfy shoes, and all my heels lived in the office, but I kept a full suit in the closet as well.)
  • Feminine products.
  • An extra umbrella.
  • A desktop calendar. She liked the ones that show a month at a glance, so she’s not constantly going back and forth to her digital calendar just to be able to talk about what dates certain days are.
  • If pumping, a dedicated pump at work. (Which is really smart, so you don’t have to haul that back and forth.)
  • Having live plants in my home office, which always brightens the day. (I agree with that. I’m not a big green thumb person, but I do really love having live plants in my office.)
  • Notably, someone said, “I do not keep my phone on my desk. Ideally, I keep it in another room.” (Which I thought was really interesting.)

All right, I’m gonna circle back to my tips just to round those out. So the first was having that dedicated primary workspace but also moving around if you need somewhere else and just need some different energy, whether it’s fresh energy, creative energy, whatever it is.

Number two is make yourself comfortable and do that by having all the little items that you need to be able to focus and be comfortable while you do it.

Tip #3: Declutter in a Realistic Way – 9:22

Number three is declutter in a realistic way. Have a place for the clutter to land. So what I mean by this is I need my desk, most of the time, to be somewhat clear. I just want it to be pretty minimal, what’s sitting on my desk, which is kind of funny because I have a huge desk, and I love having a big desk, but I also want it to be relatively empty.

But the tricky part is often there’s paper on our desks, and every sheet of paper requires some sort of decision about it. Even if you’re just gonna throw it away, you have to look at it and make a decision. So even if you’re just gonna end up tossing a lot of the paper, it still takes a lot of time, actually, to look through and make sure that’s what you’re planning to do. Often, you can’t just toss it, you have to do something with the paper, whether it’s file it, whether it’s process it, whether it’s pull action items off of it and figure out when you’re gonna do them, that kind of stuff.

It’s just funny that even little piles of paper on your desk can stack up to a lot of time. Because we often don’t have the time to sit down and process those scraps of paper when you want to clean up, it just means that the piles grow because you leave them, then, on the desk. You’re annoyed by the pile, but you don’t have time to process the pile, so the pile stays and grows.

Here’s how I solved for this. I have a three-tiered paper sorter tray that lives on another piece of furniture in my office. It’s not my desk. The top tray is my need-to-process tray. The next tray is file, and the next one is when I’ve calendared something, but I can’t really file that piece of paper yet, I’m gonna need it when I have calendared something. But that top tray is to process.

I also have my weekly clean-slate planning session, which I’ve talked about in a different episode, which is when I process the tray. So the combo of having this to-process tray and then having protected time in my calendar to process the tray allows me, throughout the week, to pick up piles of paper and either drop them in the to-process tray or, typically, scan them and make sure that I don’t need to do anything with those pieces of paper before Friday.

Even if I grab a pile and put it in that to-process tray, at least I know that’s where that stuff ends up. So if I’m looking for something later in the week, and I’m like, “Where did that piece of paper go? I know there was something I was supposed to do,” I know where it is. It’s all in that to-process tray.

This is the most realistic way I have found to deal with the clutter that ends up on your desk. It allows you to grab everything, kind of skim it in less than five minutes, you can put everything in that process tray, maybe you find something that you have to keep out (one or two papers that you’ll process later in the day), but it allows you to really clean up your desk in a quick realistic way. Also, though, remember you have to calendar the time to go actually to that process area (if it’s a tray or something else for you) and actually process the paper so you don’t completely forget about it and then freak yourself out months later seeing a pile of paper that you should have processed months ago.

Okay, so if you struggle with a cluttered desk and paper piles but don’t always have time to process the paper, which I’m pretty sure is everybody, and have a fear of moving them off your desk, you fear that it’ll lead you to forget about the piece of paper, just do this process where you establish one place where you move the clutter and calendar time once a week to go process anything in that area. Okay?

Bonus Tip: Air Out Your House – 12:38

There is also a very random bonus tip I have for you that is to air out your house. Now, I have not fact-checked this, but I’ve heard this from Sharon McMahon, who’s @sharonsaysso on Instagram, and she basically personifies fact checking in my head, so I’ll take it as true without doing my own fact checking. And she said that the indoor residential air quality, particularly during the winter, is atrocious, like worse than a smoggy city, because we just don’t tend to open doors or windows for very long. It’s all the same air, it gets stale, and then we just recirculate this very stale, dirty air in our houses all year round, or at least all winter long.

Because of that, she follows the European tradition of opening doors and windows for five minutes a day and airing out your home, which I thought, “That’s fascinating.” And she’s in Northern Minnesota. I’m in Southern Minnesota. So her air is even colder. So if she can do it, I can do it, and presumably you can do it. But basically, I have calendared time once a day, and it doesn’t happen every day. If my kids are home, I don’t do it because they’re tiny and I don’t want to make them too cold, but I air out the house for five or ten minutes every day. It feels really good. The air does feel fresher, and I just share it, even though it’s somewhat random, that it does feel like it improves the air quality in my home office. So I figured I’d share it with you too. Take it or leave it!

Crowdsourced Tips – 13:58

All right, from a crowdsource perspective, these were very wide-ranging in a really fun way. So I’m gonna read some of them. I’m also going to link to the article that you can click through and dig through all of the tips that people emailed in because I think they’re really fun. The first section is kind of about the orientation of offices and home offices.

So the first tip is don’t face the door, and this is more in an office setting. “Don’t face the door.” My old office was awkward in shape, and my desk could go in only one spot, and it was where I faced the door. I hated this. “I’m in a small suite of offices and have an executive assistant. Anyone walking in should first talk to the assistant. Instead, they’d catch my eye, and somehow I’d be caught. And in my new office now I’m not facing the door, and I fake being hard of hearing so that my assistant can act as a gatekeeper.” It’s just so smart to think through how you want your desk oriented.

I also like it so that people can’t see my computer. I don’t know why that’s weird, but it feels very private to me, what you’re doing on a computer. And so, that’s something to think about too as well.

Another tip was someone said, “My walking pad helps with ADHD and staying focused on admin tasks I’d usually procrastinate. Now, I look forward to these tasks because I get to move my body while doing them,” which is super smart!

Someone else said, similarly about the double screens is, “I like to have a screen I can plug my laptop into, so if I need a lot of data or info on the screen, I can have it all there. And then if I just need to do emails, I can work from the sofa or a cafe, and that’s okay too.” So that’s a great giving you that ability to move based on your energy needs.

The final one on desk orientation is, “My Peloton is in the room with my office. When my Peloton faced the computer, I would think about all the work during my workout. Now it’s faced towards the wall, and it’s so much better!” I think that’s awesome.

Just one on office organization. Someone shared, “I got a bunch of acrylic drawers and shelves from Target’s Brightroom line yesterday. It looks like The Container Store quality but much less cost. I spent $100 and got a lot of storage, and it helps me to feel more organized.” That’s really fun, too, especially if your organization is just visually appealing to you, whatever that means. It really does make a difference.

Okay, a couple other miscellaneous ones. For people who move work locations, from office to home to coworking space, someone shared, “I have a little pouch that has all my chargers and cords in it (phone charger, computer charger, headphones, bluetooth mouse) that always lives in my backpack, so I’m never without the technology I need.” I love doing that for travel. That’s something I definitely should work on and almost getting a second set of everything so you can just leave it, especially if you travel a lot. That could be really nice.

On the music or sound front, a couple tips on this one. One person said, “I use one of the focus songs from Headspace when I really need to get in the zone.” Somebody else said, “White, pink, or brown noise sound really helps too.” You can use those on apps from your phone. Somebody else said, “Noise-canceling headphones have been a game changer for me. Even if there’s not a ton of noise around me that I’m trying to tune out, just putting them on helps me get in the zone.”

I personally agree with a lot of that. When I worked in an office — I don’t do it as much from my home office, but when I worked in an actual office, I had full over-the-ears headphones partly just to signal to people that I was not to be interrupted. And I would listen to white noise, typically, on there as well just to block out conversations and things like that. I think sound is one of those things that really distracts me. And so, having the ability to blur that out with white noise was really, really helpful, and it does have that added bonus of you being like, “I’m not really open for conversation right now.”

The last time someone shared is temperature control. Someone shared, “I’m lucky enough to have an office with its own thermostat, though they’re locked and not able to be adjusted. However, I was recently able to get a friendly maintenance person in our building to raise the temperature set point in my office to 73, and it’s been amazing.” She shared an article, which is linked in the article that I mentioned. It’s a little meta. But it shows that there’s actual data to support that higher-ambient temps for women allow them to be more productive than how we normally keep our offices. They’re all really geared towards a man’s body, and when we allow the temperature to be higher and women to be more comfortable, they are more productive, which makes a lot of sense.

Oh, and similarly (there was one more bonus tip that I didn’t see) is another woman keeps a heated footrest near her desk for cold days. I did not know those existed, and I will be looking into those immediately.

All right! Well, that wraps it for now. I hope that this is really interesting to you and kind of fun. It’s a little bit different from — obviously, it relates to time management but it’s a little bit outside my lane. But I think it’s fun! And if you have anything you want to share and just have me add to the article I wrote on this, let me know. Just shoot me an email or message me on Instagram, and I’ll add it to the article. It’s all anonymous, so feel free to share anything that’s working for you that we didn’t mention and thank you for being here!

And before you go, just a quick reminder that you can sign up for that free digital spring clean at www.kellynolan.com/springclean. Hope to see you in there!

[Upbeat Outro Music]

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