Growing up, I found focusing a real struggle. With distractions everywhere as a kid, it taught me bad habits. As I grew up, I found my mind wandering with mental distractions like thinking about things non important to me at that time, like what I was doing that evening or wondering something obscure…
Over the past few years however, I’ve been trying to really change that with many things like various online tools like Google Keep, Google Tasks, SimpleNote and Notion and of course physical notebooks, as well as reading self help books and talking to various nerdy friends about it… however, the one thing that occurred to me a few years back is my desk set up. I always felt like I was trapped, closed in or distracted with something whilst sitting at my desk.
In the past two years I’ve changed my desk set up multiple times. My desk at home has changed location 5 times around my house and the monitor set up has changed about 2-3 times per new desk position.
When I first set up a desk in my “office”, it was a high desk which was fixed - the thinking was that I would use it as a standing desk for health benefits that were storming social media at the time. However, this didn’t work out well and I built the desk high up with not a lot of depth. This meant that although I didn’t need a lot of space for my mouse due to the mouse sensitivity I set, my arm’s were squashed as I had less than an arm’s length to work with and about 10-20% of that was taken up with my monitor stand and then in front of that, my keyboard. The main issue was that my keyboard was so close to the edge of the desk I was finding it hard to get comfortable.
[The original desk which was too high and shallow to work on]
At the time I was using a 4k monitor which although was good, I was pretty much on top of it. For gaming, this was pretty convenient. But, for productivity around my job and personal nerd stuff it became distracting. Mainly around the fact that sitting to close I was always moving my head for viewing applications I was using as well as the full screen feature on my OS was useless.
I was using this setup for a couple years until I then moved the office to downstairs and into the lounge. This seemed like a good move, but this good feeling only lasted only a month or two. The thinking for this move was that I would be downstairs, closer to my HiFi so could listen to my music whilst working (something I do enjoy a lot of). I was using a proper desk this time. But, as time went on I started to find that I was distracted by other things like house work and idea’s of decorating (I had not long started the process of divorce at the time which didn’t help with the focus).
The start of something new…
Come the summer, I moved back into the original office. This was in front of a window, the correct hight and was a larger surface area to work on. This also catered for both my personal machine (which was wall mountable at the time), as well as my work laptop. This was custom made by upcycling a desk that I used before and didn’t fit anywhere else, and.. it was built over a radiator - ready for those winter months whilst working in the office. This came with it’s own distractions though.
The first was that I put my monitor in front of the window. So, opening the window and/or blinds became a faff and found being able to look out of the window meant that I could see a fair bit - which wasn’t good. The other parts were that the PC on the wall took up space, and found this to be a problem when I wanted to use two monitors, as well as being in a room that was set up to be a dual functional room; an office and a walk in wardrobe.
… and then there were two
Buying two monitors was the start of my way to gain productivity. Back when I was a junior for ITC in Stratford-upon-avon, I remember starting with two monitors. It was liberating after using one monitor for so long. When we moved offices, I had the chance of using four monitors - double the productivity, or so I thought. Turns out it’s not, you just do a lot more moving of your head between each monitor which means you are loosing productivity and you get neck ache. My only reason for more than two would be purely to have monitoring of systems on a dashboard or similar for visibility where I didn’t need to keep constantly moving my head from each monitor.
I thought back to this and decided to replace my 4k monitor with two 2k monitors at 24 inches in size. This was my next attempt to increase focus and productivity.
When I started using two monitors for my new setup I went full throttle and purchased a monitor arm that could hold two monitors. Seemed like a great idea at the time so I was looking forward to getting it set up. At first this was working well. Both monitors were setup next to each other in landscape mode. But after a couple of weeks I was finding that I was starting to move my head more than I felt like I needed too. I didn’t remember this being an issue, but then I realised that I had one widescreen monitor and a 4:3 monitor back when I was first a junior. I started running apps in full screen to help with that so I could focus on the task(s) in hand. Over time, I started to notice I was flicking between the apps I was using in full screen and with that came further distractions where I was to flick between the wrong apps and find myself landing on Slack or other chat apps, where I would be on there longer than I anticipated or distracted by my emails or even updates on Notion.
I then remembered a lad I worked with recently, who used two monitors - one portrait and the other landscape. He would use the landscape monitor as his main monitor. So I started with the same approach. My landscape was my main focus and the portrait was used for a collection of apps used in my daily tasks.
[New desk in a new location in the office]
Moving time, again
This was working well, but the desk I was using started feeling too small in both depth and width, to a point where I felt like I was sitting on top of my monitors again. This was partly due to the odd shape the desk had to be as on the right of me was my built in wardrobe that was open with no doors - so I either had cloths in my view or I would see the mess in the bottom of the wardrobe(s) as a result of me being lazy which I would either feel like I would want to sort there and then, or think of the best way to sort it out.
With this, it was time to really make a working space that I required. Especially since the COVID lockdown at the start of 2020, forcing us all to work from home full time.
After a few sketches to plan how I would like my new office, I add a new coat of paint, got a carpet fitted and the room felt biger and more spacious. Once again I decided to make a desk - this time with scaffold boards, I also purchased a new chair and migrated my PC from my wall mountable case (which was open type too) into a new funky traditional PC tower.
During the time of setting up the new office, I set up the desk that I built downstairs but this time it was in the old dinning room. To the left was my bi-fold doors which was great for the lovely weather and was relaxing to hear the birds and have a feeling that I was working outside, but without the sun on my screen constantly. Again, after a few days or so I was starting to find newer distractions. I remembered the distractions of the living room so avoided things like music on my HiFi, but housework - that appeared again. Even as a male, I am relatively clean and tidy, but I have day’s where I will pile up the washing up neatly next to the sink and do it in one go later that day after dinner. This didn’t happen though. There were times I would feel the need to do the washing up, get a clothes wash done or think about hoovering, mopping, mowing the lawn and what ever else I could see… point is, the saying of “out of sight, out of mind” was starting to become a theme for me around what I allowed to be a distraction.
[Newer desk, but downstairs again at the back of the house]
Last move, this is it!
As the room was coming together upstairs, I was finding that even with items like a desk, new wardrobe, chair and shelve’s being added to the room, it still felt like there was an enourmous amount of space to work in.
Once completed, I placed the desk against the wall (without a window) and set up the monitors as they were before (portrait to the left, and landscape on the right) and was back on getting that focus sorted. For months it was fine, but I still found that the issue of moving my neck all the time and found I would have to lean in on my 2nd monitor that was portrait when I was trying to see specific details on a design implementation or reading something to help with my main task/focus. Everything else was fine at this point - I had a decent chair now (where I would start to find my back would start to hurt as I was now sitting properly. Not sure if it was my back resetting from sitting like a teenager until I was 39!). The desk was a good size and height too, I had light coming in which I could block out easily and I also installed a UV heating panel giving for the heating in the room and being able to heat the rest of the house outside of work hours (another distraction where I was paying to heat the whole house when I was using one room).
[Newer desk and back upstairs in the office]
After some consideration about the issue at hand - where my neck would hurt, I started to understand the distraction - or problem statement for the nerdy types…
When sitting at my desk, I wanted the perfect setup. This includes good monitors, a good keyboard and mouse, decent speakers, a well positioned web camera, a good headset, a door (was missing one for a long time previously) and the correct temperature, all whilst sitting in a comfortable chair that supported my back. The lack of having to turn my neck throughout the day was the impact around some of these issues. All sounds rediculous really, doesn’t it…
Then, it hit me. As a software engineer I am looking at my screen most of the day flicking between my terminal used for running tasks, vim, monitoring local logs and so on, as well as Slack, my browser or Insomnia/Postman when working on front ends/API’s and Notion for our company wiki/docs. Also, I can’t forget Spotify in that list. So, doing what I do best - change things up, I decided to try one more attempt at setting up my monitors. This time, the plan was to put them above each other and both in landscape mode.
Within the first few hours I found that I was able to see everything within my sight with only having to move my eyes up and down slightly and found that my upper and lower prohiphial vision was able to see most changes I would make between my editor and browser. I found that having landscape mode monitors was better again as I could put only the programs I needed in view and started using virtual screens on my OS for context switching, which meant that I would only use that keybinding when I actually needed too. I found that I wasn’t fiddling with the monitors every now and then by raising or lowering one, or turning it around from portrait to landscape - and back again. I was starting to find that my focus was more prolonged where I could do longer sessions of focus without getting distracted somehow.
[The final change to my setup]
I’m going to write specifically about this in a separate article, but my main takeaway is that focus is hard to do with so many distractions in life - whether you’re working or in your daily life. Identifying each distraction and a method to handle it is hard, but when done it creates so many benefits.