Whether you’re running a billion-dollar company or just working your way through school, you need a workspace, and you’ll spend truckloads of time and energy there. Investing in the right workspace tools costs very little but can pay enormous dividends over time.
A good workstation can exist anywhere that these five items exist. If you have all of the tools you need, you can work well just about anywhere. Just remember that the only perfect setup is the one that’s perfect for you. This list will help you get started right with your productive space—or, if yours is already set up, you might find yours could use slight adjustments or minor additions.
The five essential tools for a modern workstation are:
- Computer & Peripherals
- Paper & Pen
- Water Bottle
That's basically all you need; the rest is garnish, or specific to your work. We'll walk through the items in order and then tell you about the tools we've chosen for our own workstations.
Thank you, Captain Obvious, you say. But think for a second—most work happens over a table. Without a table, you work (or eat, or play Scrabble) on the floor.
So we trust you’re aware you need one. If you’re searching for (or setting up) a productive space, here’s the quick checklist of factors for a table that works best for your style:
Surface area. In short, do you have the right amount and type of space? Spatially, do you prefer something wide and shallow or something squarer? Do you find the items on your desk overlapping—or sprawling—in a way that hinders your focus?
Surface type. Laminate materials clean up well, but they’re less durable; glass is pretty (and you can use dry-erase markers on it!) but temperamental; wood is sturdy and can be handsome, but it’s heavier and more expensive. Your choice.
Sturdiness. Do you care if the table isn’t solid as a rock? Obviously a heavier, better-built table has less give—but if you don’t have that option, you can brace your existing table by pinning it with furniture or securing it to the wall.
Leg height. If you need a high tabletop, no chair will drop low enough for you if the table’s legs are too short—and there aren’t many elegant ways to elevate an existing table evenly. Plan accordingly.
Let's skip ahead a bit and tell you about our chairs. These chairs suck—do not recommend. You wind up either straining your neck or sitting at a 120-degree angle. But, even though we didn’t shop around enough (or—let's face it—at all), our intentions were good: we wanted simple, comfortable, ergonomically correct chairs.
Because our chairs suck, let us tell you: working at our desks is harder. It’s not very comfortable, and thus it’s sometimes harder to immerse ourselves in what we’re doing. If we didn’t have a choice and had to work there every moment of every day, we’d be uncomfortable. So choose better than we did, if you can.
As with anything, choose what's comfortable to you. Here are some things to double-check as you go chair-shopping:
Ergonomics. Is this chair going to help you keep a healthy posture? Can you sit up straight, without bowing your back or neck, and still work comfortably at your desk for extended periods?
Adjustability. Can you adjust the height, arms, and/or lumbar support? Are you comfortable in the chair under different circumstances (typing, reading, writing, and lounging)?
Material. Leather is easier to clean, but can get swampy for some people since it doesn’t breathe as well as mesh. Probably avoid fabric chairs if possible; there’s no going back once it looks dirty.
3. Computer & Peripherals
Nowadays, you can be incredibly productive with just a laptop. But, as always, computers do more with peripherals—extra tools like laptop stands, mice, and headphones. If you use a computer every day, you’ll touch and use these things every day, so you’ll be able to tell where the money went!
Laptop or Monitor Stand. This applies more to laptop users, but we’re assuming that’s quite a few of you by now. As you know, one problem with laptops is their smaller size and the fact that, when on a table, the screen sits very low. This causes us to hunch over the screen, which screws up our posture. Getting a laptop stand brings the screen up to eye level, making it easier to see and helping us keep our necks straight. It makes a noticeable difference in terms of comfort.
Mouse. For everyday browsing, a built-in trackpad does just fine. But the moment you start fiddling with anything beyond browsing, you’ll probably find a mouse or better controller helpful.
Of course, you may also find, if you like using a laptop stand, that you might kind of need a mouse since the computer will be a bit further out of reach.
For mice, select for reliability and features you like. Quality has little correlation with price. You could also try something like an external trackpad if that suits you better.
Headphones or Speakers. We’re a wired-in culture by now; we do better when we can tune in to sounds we like (or tune out sounds we don’t). We assume many of you already take headphones with you everywhere you go.
Headphones are headphones—but, for the same reasons as for your other gear, make sure they work for you. If you could use noise-cancelling tech, spring for it (we don’t need it, but it’s magical). If you travel a lot or just love music, why not spring for headphones whose quality you’ll notice? You use them every day!
More realistically, if you can’t afford $50+ headphones, find a cheap pair in a style that suits you and try them out. If you like them, buy another pair or two—and if you bought them online, bookmark the link.
4. Paper & Pen
More and more in our lives is becoming digital—but there are some parts of our work and creative processes that just don’t sync online. Doodling, jotting down, sketching, and brainstorming happen most organically on paper, where the hands and mind can do whatever they want. Plus, of course, there’s just no replacement for the tactile experience of writing with pen and paper.
This is, of course, part of the reason we started Code & Quill. Digital tools are evolving faster than ever before, but analog tools are not. We know the best work today is done with digital and analog at the ready.
We keep two forms of paper on our desks: our Code & Quill notebooks and blank 3x5 index cards (useful for, say, a quick grocery list or reminder). We’ll talk more about pens later—that's a discussion of its own.
5. Water Bottle
We’re not doctors and we don’t know you, so we won’t give a specific prescription for your water intake. But it’s true that dehydration is more common than people realize, and it can slow you down in subtle ways while you (try to) work.
Whatever amount of water you should consume daily, the best way to make sure you get it is to keep it near you all the time, especially when you’re working—and the easiest way to do that is to have something for that express purpose. So consider getting a water bottle—again, whatever style you like—and just keep in the back of your mind that you should finish that bottle [x] number of times in a day.
If you’re not enthused by drinking plain water all day, try out Mio or other additives. If you go light, one little bottle can stretch a long way, and it can make staying hydrated a little more pleasing to the senses.
If you want a “what and why” tour of our essentials, keep on reading. Otherwise, go out and find the tools that work best for you!
Our Workstation Tools
Tables. We have two tables from IKEA, built from $40 tabletops and $4 legs—not specifically linked here because there's a thousand ways to build a table at IKEA. They’re lightweight laminate, so they’ve got some natural give, but we reduced wobble by lashing our two tables' legs together with zip-ties. IKEA is (obviously) a great choice for cheap but functional furnishings, and usually you can outfit their tabletops with a variety of different legs, including adjustables for more money.
Chairs. As we mentioned, our chairs suck. There are much better $100 chairs out there. This is where, unfortunately, you’ll have to do all of your own research. If you can spend $600 on a top-of-the-line chair, do it—it doesn't seem as expensive when you think of it as "preventing your future back problems."
Computers & Peripherals—
Laptop Stands. We have Rain Design mStands for our MacBooks ($42 on Amazon currently). The older model had slightly better grips, but it’s still a solid product, and of course it matches the MacBooks.
Mice and Trackpad. As we mentioned about mice, quality doesn’t correlate strongly with price. For example, one of us used to own a R.A.T., an expensive gaming mouse; it was cool, but didn’t work as well as a $140 mouse should. For the last year its $12 replacement has worked better than the R.A.T.
On the topic, it can be nice to have a big mousepad. Consider, for example, a jumbo SteelSeries pad for under $20 on Amazon.
Keyboards. Our keyboards—not mentioned above—are our “splurge items.” We use mechanical keyboards, which are the “clicky” keyboards made with old-school mechanical switches below the keys (as opposed to the rubber-membrane switches under most cheap keyboards; pop off a key and see for yourself). But a keyboard is a keyboard, and laptops include them—why spend, for instance, $139 on a DAS keyboard?
Because we each type several thousand words a day, and these things feel amaaaaaaazing. It’s like typing on bubbles blown by angels. We’ll spend $139 on something that makes work more fun literally every moment you're using it.
Headphones and Speakers. Like with mice, you can spend a ton on headphones or speakers, but you definitely don't have to. In some cases (in ours, at least), it's preferable to find cheap, decent-quality pairs that can be thrown around and stuffed in different places. (Besides, we neither need nor trust ourselves with anything fancier.)