How do you create the perfect office setup?

There’s no such thing as the “perfect office”. No more than there’s a perfect car, horse, house, or hairstyle for somebody – it’s more about what suits your current circumstances.

The first time I set up a home office I decided I needed everything to be perfect – the perfect desk, the perfect chair, filing cabinet, etc,etc. In fact, I spent so much time and money on fiddling around with tiny details that I wound up losing heart in what I was doing, accepted a job with a local IT company, and all of a sudden lost 4 years of my life.

What you need to do is to get the basics right, and then worry about the rest later.

What you need for a home office

Okay, so the basic things every home office should have are a desk, a comfortable office chair and a computer of some kind.

Location, Location, Location
Wherever you decide to set up your office at home it has to be a space dedicated just to that, unless you have absolutely no other choice.

Yes, you can work from your kitchen table on a laptop, but it’s far from ideal because you’re going to get interrupted every time somebody needs to eat something.

Bad location for a home office

Tough place to work from…

My home office at the moment is in the smallest spare room in my home – it’s 7.5 x 7.5 feet. All that was in here before was an old wardrobe, and a single guest bed nobody ever used. So, I threw the bed out, moved the wardrobe to another room and planted my desk, chair and computer in there.

With a little bit of creative thinking (and some serious bargaining with your partner) you should be able to find at least one corner of your home that can be your dedicated office space.

If there’s literally not a single inch to spare inside your home, then how about your loft/attic area or is there a warm, insulated shed you could use? Or maybe purchase one of those “tiny homes” and make it your own dedicated office space?

The reason why I’m stressing the importance having your own space is that you’ll simply be far more productive if you have a space you can call your own. One where you won’t get interrupted by people calling to the house, kids running around, or the dog going insane because a leaf blew past the window and he/she wants to warn everyone of the imminent danger.

Your desk
Assuming that you have a dedicated room for your office (spare room, loft/attic or whatever) then the bare minimum in terms of desk space should be 42-inches long, 30-inches deep and 27-inches in height. You can get desks that are much smaller than that, but you’re going to wind up with all your work crammed on top of you, and constantly banging your knees against the side of the desk.

kidney shaped office desk

If you have a bit more space to work with then ideal desk dimensions are 48-inches long, 30-inches deep and 28-inches in height. This is more than enough space for a desktop/laptop with a dual-screen setup and enough space for pens, notepads, whiteboard markers, empty coffee cups, snack wrappers, and all the other stuff you promised yourself you’d never clutter your desk with. But that’s okay, because firstly you’re human, and secondly, apparently a messy desk is a sign of above average intelligence…or that’s what I keep telling myself.

Do yourself a massive favor and choose a desk with a flat surface – those multiple tier desks might look cool, but they’re really uncomfortable to work on.

The last consideration here is the the shape of your desk – you can either choose a conventional straight edge or l-shaped desk. You can also choose from a kidney-shaped desk, where a portion of it is cut away to allow you to sit closer to your keyboard and mouse.

I’ve used all of the above, and have two different types in my home, but the desk I’m sitting at right now is a 60-inch x 32-inch x 28-inch straight, flat monster I bought 20 years ago for about $300, and it’s still serving me well today.

Your chair
Whatever other corners you feel you need to cut to save you a few bucks when setting up your home office, DO NOT skimp on your office chair. Your ass is going to be planted in this for several hours each day, so it needs to be at least somewhat comfortable. Now, I know those fancy office chairs you’ve seen on Amazon like the Herman Miller chairs that look amazing, but they’re probably outside your budget. There are tips in the “Setting up a home office on a budget” section, that will help you set up a really neat looking home office, but for a whole lot less than you thought possible.

mesh office chairYou should look for the following features in any office chair you plan on spending a lot of time in:

  • 5-wheel base – knowing that your chair won’t collapse underneath you is always a nice thing to know
  • Adjustable backrest – some chairs offer incremental adjustment settings, where others are either set to fixed upright, or full freedom of movement. I’ve used both and have no real preference.
  • Mesh back (thought I’d hate this feature, but it’s way more comfortable than a fabric or leather backrest)
  • Height-adjustable arm wrests
  • Height adjustable so that you feet are firmly planted on the floor while working
  • Swivel base – you’ll need freedom of movement, especially when sitting for long periods of time
  • Lower back (lumbar) support- your back will thank you in years to come
  • Made from breathable fabric – this is critical during the summer, and the exact reason why I avoid leather “executive” type office chairs

What you’re looking for is a chair that’s ergonomically friendly, but that won’t cost a small fortune. Now, I’m a bit of a hypocrite here when it comes to ergonomics, because I have a really bad habit of sitting with my left leg underneath me. That usually happens when I’m completely wrapped up in what I’m doing (like right now), but it’s a habit I should try to break.

Setting up a home office on a budget

I’m not going to go down the road of giving financial advice here, because that’s just not my thing i.e. I’m not qualified to do it. But I do understand that a lot of people reading this article are probably sitting there going, “Yeah, fine. I’ll just whip out my maxed out credit card, and go buy myself a desk and chair right now”.

Here’s the thing: It will never, ever be the right time to start your own business, and that’s coming from a guy who’s had his own fair share of success and failure. So, the last thing you should let get in your way is that you don’t have enough money to buy the basics.

You’ll find office desks and chairs being given away either for pocket change, or free, on sites like Craiglist, Donedeal or Gumtree. A quick search on Facebook will find a “Buy and Sell” group in your area, with plenty of people looking to simply throw out perfectly good office furniture. At worst you’ll have to drive to collect it, but you can quite easily pick up an almost-new office desk and chair for whatever it costs you in gas to drive there.

Let’s assume though that neither of the above exist, which might happen. Look for large offices or call centres in your town – anywhere there’s a lot of bums in seats – and try to make contact with their facilities manager. Or ask your friends if they know of any facility managers in their own social circle. Why would you bother doing this? Well, because every year or so these big companies take any worn or slightly damaged desks and chairs and toss them into dumpsters by the dozen. They do this with older computers too, by the way, so that’s one super easy way to pick up a perfectly good office computer at zero cost!

Again your only expense here will be the cost of traveling to pick the desk or chairs up, although some jerk facility managers will charge you a token amount for whatever they’re giving you. That’s despite the fact that you’re actually saving them the cost of having it removed by the local trash company.

But even if you do pay $20 for the desk and chair, that’s still a good deal – they’re probably worth $200 each, but because somebody spilled coffee on the chair or scrawled their name in the desk, you’re getting them at 10% of the market price.

If you are struggling with your finances the only book I can recommend here is The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey. He’s the reason why I stopped buying lottery tickets, well once I realized they were costing me over $300 per year – and I wasn’t playing every single game I came across.

Dave’s book is a great way to get honest with yourself about your finances, and how you can dig yourself out of whatever financial hole you find yourself in.

A home office in a small space

Don’t panic if you don’t have an entire room to use as a home office, or if you can’t afford to have your loft converted – it’s still possible to create a usable workspace even where you think you have no options at all. To get around the problem you start to need to look at it laterally, and not just from the “I don’t have a spare room, so I’m an instant fail” point of view.

The first places to look are closets that are never used, or are just filled with junk which should have been tossed in the trash years ago. Every single home has that one nook or corner where people cram stuff they’re going to “use later”. Your next step is to measure the width of that space and see if it falls within my guidelines for adequate desk space. If so, then you have a small space that’s not quite an office, but will allow you to work in without going nuts.

Example of an office in a small space

If you don’t have any closets or cupboards you’re not using then look underneath your stairs. In most smaller homes this is usually where household items are stored, like jackets, cleaning equipment, etc. Simply clearing that space out would allow you to fit a desk and chair underneath your stairs, and again, although it’s not a dedicated room, it’s better than working from your kitchen table.

The only real downside to working in a smaller space is that you’ll probably have to use a laptop instead of a desktop PC, but you’ll still be able to fit two small screens in there, so you get a dual monitor setup regardless.

If you have to use a smaller space like this to work from then invest in a good pair of noise cancelling headphones, and get a “work playlist” ready, because you’ll need to drown out the background distractions of people talking on phones, your TV, and all the other household noises that will break your train of thought in a heartbeat.

Your home office computer setup

So, how much computing power do you really need for your home office? Not an awful lot to be honest, well not unless you’re a professional graphic designer, or video editor. I’ve seen all too many people drag their heels on setting up their home office because they can’t afford the newest, fastest, shiniest computer…which is just plain silly. You might be kidding yourself into thinking you need it for work, but you secretly want it to play games on. That’s okay, but playing games isn’t going to make you any money, and a faster computer never, ever makes you more productive. It just doesn’t.

The reality is that most people working from home need a computer that can handle web browsing, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and maybe a few other small programs like that. Anyone who really needs more computing power won’t need advice from me on what to choose, but for those of you dithering about what type of computer to choose.

Here’s the best advice I can give: Buy what you can afford, and you can upgrade later on when you’ve made some money.

home office computer
Brand names don’t really matter because all the components are made in the same handful of factories in Taiwan or China, so the difference between a computer worth $300 and $800 is usually about nothing more than the badge on the front of it. Remember, all iPhones are made in China, but you still pay over US$1,000 for them, even though they cost about $75 to manufacture.

If you find that you’re even struggling to buy the cheapest new computer you can find then I’m glad to tell you there’s a solution – buy refurbished office computers instead. These are older models, but are usually ex-government stock, so have been well maintained by expert IT teams. Yes, they will have a lower specification than a newer computer, but an old Intel Dual Core PC is more than capable of handling any day-to-day office work you throw at it, because that’s exactly what it was used for in its last life. How much can you save by purchasing a refurbished PC? You can get them for as little as $100 each, and except for a few scratches the computer will be in perfect working order. A quick Google search for “refurbished computers” will turn up plenty of results, no matter where on Earth you live.

One area I will advise you to spend some extra cash is by investing in a dual-monitor setup for your computer. This is the single best office setup tip I can give you to really improve your productivity. I’m a freelance writer and author by trade, and I would be literally lost without my dual-screens. Seriously. Working on a computer with a single screen makes me feel like I have one hand tied behind my back.

Most of the companies selling refurbished laptop and desktop computers also usually sell additional monitors, and for way less than you might expect. In fact, you can probably get yourself a dual-monitor computer setup for about $150, or maybe even a bit less.

So, based on the fact you can get a perfectly good computer for your new home office for about $100, you have no reason not to get started in your new venture.

Your home office tech essentials

By this stage you know what type of desk you’re getting, you have a good idea of what type of chair won’t leave you with life-long back problems, and you’ve also settled on what a desktop or laptop computer for your home office. So, what else is there in terms of tech stuff?

There’s a few other items you might want to add to your shopping list. The first is a set of noise-cancelling headphones and there’s a few reasons for this. The first is that they’ll obviously help you drown out background noises. The second is that when somebody sees you working while wearing a pair of headphones they’re far less likely to interrupt you – in the same way they won’t try to make conversation with you on a train if you’re pretending to listen to music.

Good quality headphones are also important because you’ll need your “work playlist” to help you focus. I’m going to cover this in more detail in another article, but listening to certain types of music can help put you in what’s called a “flow” state, where you’ll be far more productive than if you weren’t listening to it.

And then finally you’ll need some form of data backup device or service.

I actually use several – I’m super paranoid about data loss and with good reason – but to preserve your own sanity you need at least something to back your work up to. I’m a recovering tech nerd, and I can’t tell you how many friends and friends of friends I’ve had at my front door literally in tears because their laptop died and they’ve lost all 4 years of college work/all their work documents/all their wedding photos. Basically, if you’re not backing up your data then you’re asking for trouble – it’s only a matter of time before you suffer a data loss incident.

So, at the bare minimum I’d recommend getting a 32GB or 64GB USB flash drive to store documents on. If you can afford to spend a bit more then maybe consider a USB external hard drive- my favorites are the WD (Western Digital) My Passport models because they don’t need a separate power source and seem to be almost indestructible. I own several of them and not of them has ever failed. Not once. The only real downside to either of these is that you have to remember to backup your data, which is why I use both Dropbox and Mozy for off-site file backups. I also use a second internal hard drive to backup my data on a daily basis, so I’ll never lose more than a few hours worth of data. I love Mozy because it automates the entire backup process for both mass local and remote file backup, but Dropbox is really useful for keeping a second dedicated copy of my client work that I can access anywhere.

What office supplies do you need for a new office?

And finally we need to take a look at paper, pens and all that other stuff. Again, you don’t need to remortgage your home to buy what you need here. My setup is a stack of A4 legal pads (the yellow kind) because I find them easier to make notes on. My favourite pens are Papermate Flexigrips because they’re very easy to write with, and come in multiple colours, which is ideal for the type of work I do.

Something I’ve recently started doing is journaling as part of my business. I’ve tried so many different apps, spreadsheets, and trackers to store different ideas I have, but nothing has worked better than paper and a pen. That probably makes me sound like a bit of a luddite (somebody who’s afraid of technology) but I’m not. I’ve just found that the act of having dedicated journals for different topics works really well.

For example, I have one small journal that contains all the different topics and research I’ve done for this website. Another journal is for ideas for my fiction books, and another one is just for general business doodling and ideas. I use a mixture of A5 and A6 journals from a company called Silvine for this, but that’s only because I’m too cheap to pay for Moleskine notepads!

Seriously though, if you’ve never tried journaling you should. It’s helped me set a number of concrete goals I can refer to in a way that just doesn’t work in any digital format.