How I Work: Arranging Your Desk for Creative Productivity

A couple of weeks ago, a happy coincidence made me realize I hadn't rearranged my desk setup since we moved into our current offices at Creatuity almost two years ago - I read a brief article in Inc. that mentioned that people are more creative and less stressed when they can look up and see trees and natural light on the same day @PhilWinkle was awesome enough to retweet this tweet:

I decided to combine these ideas with my own unique twist to fit the culture and vibe here in Creatuity's offices. Here's my desk setup before I made these changes:

IMG_6596 IMG_6597 IMG_6598

Despite having a great view of a large, mature oak tree out of the windows in my office, I had setup my desk where when I look up, I saw my whiteboard wall (IdeaPaint) and the hallway outside of my office. When I would get frustrated with a task or felt mentally blocked, I would look up and either see a distraction in the hallway or a solid white wall - not very inspiring.

Here's how I rearranged my office to take advantage of the view outside of my window, while switching my monitor setup around thanks to the inspiration from @jakeasmith:

IMG_6606 IMG_6604 IMG_6602IMG_6615IMG_6617IMG_6613

The side-mounted display and laptop are used for anything that might distract me - generally Twitter, HipChat, IRC, etc. So when I'm focused in, I just don't even look over there. I've been using the primary monitor for whatever I'm actively working on, with the portrait-oriented monitors used for reference materials, my todo app (OmniFocus), terminal windows, etc.

My back is to my door, which took some time to get used to, but that's why I moved my motion-activated Portal-inspired Sentry Gun so that it faces the door and alerts me when someone walks in. That means I'm no longer distracted every time someone walks past, and when I look up while I'm stumped or frustrated with a task, I see blue sky and the oak tree. I took this opportunity to add a small zen garden and plant to my desk.

This setup gives me everything I need to be productive and get things done close at hand, and keeps me creative.

If you have any questions about my desk setup, my office or why we encourage everyone at Creatuity to really personalize their space (which is why I have the mix of travel and gaming posters on the walls of my office), find me on Twitter as @JoshuaSWarren or comment right here!

Acknowledging The One Thing Standing Between You and Your Goals: Fear


Fear, not a lack of time, money or opportunities, prevents us from reaching our goals. The first step to overcoming this is simply to acknowledge our fear.

Wiktor overcoming his fear of gravity, one jump at a time...

It's been an interesting week, throughout which a random set of coincidences has led me to realize that the biggest thing that has slowed me down, that has kept me from reaching my goals and that has done the same thing to countless people I know has been fear. Not a lack of time, not a lack of opportunities, not a lack of money, but fear, pure and simple. Even when you look back to my last article, about no longer making excuses and just getting out there and doing the things you want to do (in my case, cooking more), you can see fear in the background. Fear of not having the right recipes. Fear of failure. Fear of wasting my time. I'd like to walk you through how I realized this over the course of this week.

Earlier this week, my friend and colleague Wiktor Jarka, recommended a book to me. Like most of his recommendations lately, it involved his favorite hobby - skydiving (the mere mention of which makes me fearful, I admit!). The book, Transcending Fear: The Doorway to Freedom, discusses how to recognize and move beyond fear from the perspective of the author, a world champion skydiver, test pilot and psychologist.

Midweek, I began preparing a presentation for this week's Awesome Friday lunch at Creatuity. We'll be watching psychologist Kelly McGonigal's TED talk entitled "How to make stress your friend" (a great video that's worth the 15 minutes to watch it). In her talk, Kelly quotes some rather surprising statistics from a study on stress and its impact on lifespan. Kelly references a study showing that people who have experienced significant stress in the previous year have a 43% increased risk of dying, but only if they believe that stress is harmful for their health. People who experience significant levels of stress but don't view stress as harmful have a lower risk of dying than those who have relatively little stress. The belief that stress is bad for you is estimated to be the 15th largest cause of death in the US - killing more people than skin cancer or homicide! So it's not stress that causes health problems, but the fear of stress - your outlook and thoughts on stress.


Finally, this morning, oDesk featured an article about my success on their blog and Facebook feed. Each time an article like this goes live, I receive a number of comments, Tweets and other messages from people who say they hope to be as successful as me someday, that they can't imagine making the leap to starting their own business or freelancing, and they ask for advice on how to get started and how I did it. As I was reading some of these messages this morning, the book Transcending Fear and the stats from Kelly McGonigal's presentation clicked together in my mind, and I realized that what holds back almost everyone I talk to about getting started as a freelancer, starting their own business or any new, exciting venture is simply fear.

My first impulse was to tell you about how to overcome your fear, how by defeating your fear you can become famous, rich, successful, whatever, but that is vastly oversimplifying the impact that fear has on the average person. Instead, I would like you to do something much simpler - acknowledge your fear. Admit that it is fear that's stopping you from going further, from accomplishing more, from starting that new business. Much like changing your attitude about stress changes how stress impacts your body and lifespan, acknowledging your fear is the first step towards mastering it and using it to accomplish your goals.

I'm reminded of the 'Litany Against Fear' that the author Frank Herbert wrote in many of his books. One version, from a miniseries based on his work is a great place to start. If you want to start a freelancing career, your own business or some other equally daunting task, repeat this to yourself:

"I will not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. I will face my fear. I will let it pass through me. Where the fear has gone, there shall be nothing. Only I will remain."


Cooking and Reaching Your Goals

Don’t talk about it, be about it

Seeking Fulfillment Beyond Work

After spending entirely too many years focused on launching and growing Creatuity to the exclusion of almost everything else in my life, I recently decided to sit down and identify what I enjoyed in life and seeing and if I was actively pursuing activities that brought some sort of enjoyment or value to my life. Being a dedicated Omnifocus user and a fan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done approach to productivity, I decided to sit down and create a Project for each of these activities I wanted to do more of, define the actions necessary to make it happen and just generally approach it like I would a project for work.

How Not To Become a Chef

One example is cooking - when we moved into our new house a couple of years ago, we went with the ‘gourmet’ kitchen with double convection ovens, a huge gas range and all the other trimmings someone who cooks often could possibly want, because I was going to cook more. Fast forward two years and I think I’ve cooked twice since we moved in. So, I setup a project called “Cook More at Home” and created some actions such as researching the best recipe websites, cooking apps, etc., because then surely I would cook more, right? I have the kitchen, the tools, the well-defined project and steps and access to a virtually unlimited supply of recipes and tips on the Internet.

A Complete Lack of Progress

Let’s fast forward a few more months, when I’m disappointed to admit I still wasn’t cooking more. Or at all. I’ve checked off some of the action items in my “Cook More at Home” project, but overall made very little progress on the project, and most importantly, I hadn’t cooked anything at home (unless the microwave counts). Then, I saw another developer on Twitter mention that he was looking for a good recipe app and I realized that I was pulling a classic developer/techie move - I was so focused on finding the best way to do something, that I wasn’t actually doing it.

No More Yak Shaving

I realized that I was using the fact that I didn’t know the best way to approach cooking, the best way to organizing my recipes and the best system to put into place to make sure I cook more often to stop be from actually doing the work of making this project happen. I was, as Merlin Mann discussed, yak shaving. Instead of running through the steps that Merlin lists in his article, however, I decided that, like most goals we set for ourselves but never manage to reach, the answer was simple: just do it. Stop talking about it. Stop making excuses. Stop coming up with systems and approaches and finding the best app. That night, I went to the grocery store, bought some ingredients and spent the weekend cooking. What I learned, and I hope you will learn as well, is that if there’s a goal that is truly important to you the most important thing you can do is just get out there and make it happen.

Be About It

Or, in the words of the famous 21st century poet, Busta Rhymes in his epic, “Pass the Courvoisier” - Don’t talk about it, be about it!

Disappearing Weeks

We've all had weeks that went by in a flash, where you sit down at the end of the week and say "what just happened?" and feel like achieved little, if anything, of value - it's like the entire week just disappeared. A recent article by 99%, a think tank inspired by Thomas Edison's quote that "Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration", included a statement that really resonated with me -- "Whole weeks can flash by in a blur of relatively meaningless emails, meetings, and admin tasks while the 'big stuff' goes untended." This statement describes my life lately; while we have a great development team at Creatuity, we have yet to find a solid, reliable person to manage our customer service processes and we have only just begun to think about hiring someone to manage our sales processes - this leaves me as our point person for all customer service, sales, billing and a number of other tasks...meaning I spend what feels like 99% of my time on emails, meetings and admin tasks and only a very, very small portion working on development and other more creative, interesting or overall 'big picture' tasks. So, this article was very interesting to me - they list 6 questions you should ask yourself every day to help you spend more time on these big picture items. The 6 questions are:

  1. What are you doing in this moment?
  2. Are you scheduling time daily to focus without interruption?
  3. What's the ONE BIG THING you want to accomplish today?
  4. Why do you do this every single day?
  5. Is what I'm about to do (or say) moving the ball forward?
  6. What is your training regime for increasing your ability to focus hard on something without distraction?

A few of these are questions I've been asking myself every day, but two of them are questions I want to incorporate into my daily processes. These two that I'm going to be working on, and documenting my progress on here, are scheduling time daily to focus without interruption and a training regime for increasing my ability to focus hard. Focus is one of the areas I struggle with the most, so I hope by asking myself these questions I'll be able to improve my ability to focus on the truly important work instead of being overwhelmed with minor tasks and distractions and losing weeks of time. If you've overcome this or improved your ability to focus, how did you do it?

Two of the questions that I've been asking myself for some time now are "Why do you do this every single day" and "is what I'm about to do or say moving the ball forward". For the first one, "why do you do this every single day", I've focused on tasks I do every day and either found a way to automate them or outsource them - oDesk is an amazing place where you can find and hire people from all over the world to help with almost any type of task; routine data entry (such as updating a CRM) and other tasks I found myself doing every day that I couldn't automate are all now done by contractors I've found and hired via oDesk.

On moving the ball forward, I recently read a book that encourages you to just constantly seek to move the ball forward - whatever plan, big idea or dream you have, just find some way, no matter how small, to move the ball forward, to make some progress towards that goal. So now, I'm always asking myself what I can do to move the ball forward and move myself closer to achieving what I want to achieve. As a great side-effect, I now find myself asking this very question - "is what I'm doing moving the ball forward?" when I find myself spending too much time on a task. If it's not moving the ball forward, it's not where you need to be spending your time.

Do you feel like you have weeks disappearing from your life? What have you done to fight it and focus your time on things that truly matter?