How to simplify your home office

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The closets, shelves, and drawers in my office are full of old Macs and iPhones (as well as even older non-smartphones), keyboards, mice, trackballs, cables and adapters of every description, books about decades-old products, tchotchkes from a hundred trade shows and conferences, and other tech detritus. In fact, it’s not only tech products. Somehow I’ve accumulated several lifetimes’ worth of office supplies and numerous other objects I’ll just never use.

Junk itself is a comparatively minor problem. What bugs me is inefficiency. Unneeded (or seldom-needed) objects have a way of interposing themselves between me and the Useful Object I Need Right Now. So, I’m working to simplify my home office—not only by getting rid of old stuff but also by rearranging furniture and electronics to reduce time spent searching for and moving things instead of doing productive work.

If you think your office could do with some simplification too, perhaps these ideas will give you a nudge in the right direction.

Optimize office layout

Your office may or may not afford you much flexibility when it comes to the placement of things like desks and shelves. (My small office was particularly challenging that way.) But taking the time to find the best arrangement of large objects can pay off in a big way. As I promised myself I’d do (see "Seven New Year’s resolutions for the Mac home office"), I spent hours experimenting (on paper) with office layouts to find one that would put all my crucial technology within arm’s reach, and then an afternoon moving everything around. Now I like my office much better because I don’t have to fight with poorly placed objects to get my work done. (Had I been so inclined, I could have used an app like Chief Architect’s free Room Designer for iPad to visualize the changes, but that would have been overkill for my needs.)

Because I do a lot of video interviews and presentations, one tricky puzzle was finding permanent homes for my light fixtures so that I don’t have to move them into place only when needed. But I finally cracked that nut, so I no longer have to trip over cords or light stands, and I’m always ready to do video at a moment’s notice.

De-junk and recycle

I inherited a packrat gene from my father, and as a result I find it difficult to part with any object that might conceivably be useful in the future. Even though my 2002-vintage titanium PowerBook G4 hasn’t been turned on in years and has zero market value, a combination of sentimentality and the nagging feeling that it could still, somehow, be put to good use makes me reluctant to part with it. Yet there it sits, year after year. Does that sound familiar?

Here’s my advice, which I’m trying to take myself: Be ruthless. If you haven’t used an object in a couple of years, it’s clear that you can live without it. If it’s not worth any money, recycling is better than wasting office space. As you dig through your old tech stuff, weed out duplicates and set aside anything that’s broken, obsolete, or unusable. When an object gives you pause, be realistic about the likelihood of using it again. If the probability is less than 10 percent, put it in the recycle pile. Once you’re ready to move that stuff out of your office, check out our advice for recycling old tech gear.

One tactic that makes me feel better about getting rid of things is replacing three or four single-purpose objects with one multipurpose thing. For example, you may be able to replace an outdated printer, scanner, and fax machine with a single multifunction device. Or replace several old, slow hard drives with a faster, higher-capacity hard drive with a USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt interface.

Organize what remains

I used to keep all my miscellaneous cables and adapters in a big canvas bag. Now I have them sorted into a series of small, neatly labeled drawers: One for USB stuff, one for audio stuff, one for iOS accessories, and so on. That simple move alone has saved me tons of time and effort searching for things.

I suggest choosing relatively broad categories—you probably don’t need a special storage place just for silver, 2GB thumb drives. But whether you use bins, drawers, boxes, or some other organizational tool, put your most frequently used items in a convenient spot (such as a shelf next to your desk).

Once you’ve simplified and optimized your office, be prepared to reassess its efficiency and repeat the procedure from time to time—perhaps once a year, or whenever you notice the clutter gaining the upper hand again.

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