I have struggled with memory and organization my entire life, and while I made great leaps forward after a diagnosis of ADHD in high school, the true revelation for me happened in late 2018. This is when I realized that I have a major dissociative disorder, which involves, among other things, amnesia, time-blindness, and frequent prolonged periods of what I like to call “being terminally spaced out”.
As a self-proclaimed “terminal space-case”, what do I do to stay focused and productive? How can the lessons and tools I’ve developed as a 5-star amnesiac be transferred to you, a possibly ADHD, possibly neurotypical, possibly spacy person who struggles with workplace focus?
I approach my disability from three angles, which I believe are universal enough to be adapted as a guideline for your own workplace environment:
- Visual and Spatial Organization.
- Routine, Repetition, and Building Safety Nets.
- Self-care, Forgiveness, and Fun.
In this post we’ll be focusing on the first:
Visual and Spatial Organization.
A phrase I have frequently found myself using throughout my life has been “I wish my brain existed outside my head, so I could see the connections I’m not making inside it”. With this in mind, I encourage you to look around your work area, and imagine you are sitting inside of your own head. Is it cluttered? Can you find everything you need to? Is it depressing? Is it fun?
While figuring out an ideal workplace setup can involve a good deal of time and effort, it really only involves two rules:
- Out of sight, out of mind.
- The further away it is, the less it exists.
In truth, these are actually the same rule listed twice:, but one is a rule for your eyes and the other is for your muscles. To someone like myself, who deals with both ADHD and dissociation, these rules are vital. I might put my notes in a drawer, get distracted and/or dissociate, then look back at my desk for my notes and have an anxiety attack because they “vanished”. Arranging my workspace items visually helps me remember they exist, and sorting their importance by distance keeps me undistracted and productive.
Chances are, you’re not quite that bad. Nevertheless, maybe you’ve at least lost a few pens, and once or twice misplaced That One Really Important Thing You Need Right Now. If a space case like myself can keep perfect track of my tablet pen for two months and counting, you can do incredible things with your environment. All you need is some visual and spatial reorganization.
Since we’re discussing visuals, let’s get started with a photo of my workspace!
Welcome to my “brain”. Looks a bit out of control, doesn’t it? I’m able to get away with a bit more due to working from home, and a minimalistic man, I am not. However, let’s use our two rules to break this space down and understand what is really happening, and how it can apply to your own environment:
GREEN: IN SIGHT / IN REACH
The most important items, that I interact with every day
• Raised laptop with wireless keyboard, mouse: Ergonomics are important! Discomfort is a form of distraction. Also, you deserve to keep your body healthy! Make sure the items you interact with most are positioned for good posture and maximum ease of use.
• 2nd screen: ‘out of sight, out of mind’ applies to programs and tabs, as well. If you’re able to, give yourself the extra screen space to see everything you’re working on. I keep my calendar and email up at all times, as the first two tabs on my browser. More than anything, constantly switching between programs is irritating as heck.
• Pen organizer: My most common “reach for” items. Divided into:
o “Boring” pens and highlighters for taking notes
o Colorful pens for organizing and reviewing notes
o Electronics (headphones, syluses, watch)
• On-desk weekly calendar: Undated, so if I forget about it for a week I don’t feel like I’ve wasted paper. I log my hours here and make general notes of what I did each day. Kept on my left, because I don’t use it as often as I use my notebook.
• Work papers/notebook: My trusty three-subject notebook, and my WIGOT (What Is Going On Today?) notepad. All other papers are organized within my notebook – I’ll go into paper organization in a separate blog post. This is kept on my right, because I am right-hand dominant.
• Tiny whiteboard: This is where I write down the things I KNOW I will forget immediately and/or repeatedly. This could be a phone number, an upcoming bill, or even a mantra I need to be reminded of regularly. On my right for easy updates.
• “Comfort items” tray: A collection of items that bring me joy that I know I’m not tempted to mess around with while working.
Happiness is a vital part of your work area. Remember our analogy that your workspace = your brain? Your environment guides your thoughts and feelings throughout the day. If you spend 6-8 hours a day not seeing anything that makes you happy, it can and will affect your productivity and mental health. Out of sight, out of mind.
YELLOW: IN SIGHT / OUT OF REACH
Equally important items that don’t require daily physical interaction
- Monthly calendar: This is a life-saver for remembering bills and appointments. I recommend getting the simplest one you can find. Mine is paper, easy to read and update. I’ve tried whiteboard calendars before and I always smudge them up and panic. I color-code mine for easy reading as well. This is typically updated any time I take a break/stand up (if it needs to be updated).
- Corkboard & decorations: Working from the same intent as my “comfort items” tray, this space is only for beautiful things that make me happy. Since I don’t have a window by my desk, these provide a satisfying alternative when I need to sit back and zone out, and the curtains work like blinders to keep my attention from drifting to the rest of the room. If your workspace is smaller, shared, or lacks walls, consider a small corkboard in a photo frame, or (if you’re able) a medium-tall plant that blocks your neighboring space.
- Emergency chill-out supplies: For when zoning out isn’t enough, sometimes you gotta pace the room in your pink kitty paw gloves and rant to your stegosaurus about edits and scope. Or maybe that’s just me. Either way, if you’re a fidgeter, pick a couple favorite items to have on or near your workspace for emergency situations.
BLUE: OUT OF SIGHT / IN REACH
Rarely used items I’ll need in a pinch, and Disposal
- Under laptop tray: Not technically out of sight, but hidden enough to trick my brain. Tissues, thumbtacks, post-its, pencil case full of spare pens. Things I’ll inevitably need that I don’t want to waste time looking for.
- 2nd screen platform: Actually a donut-themed tin box. Filled with even more pens, because you can never have too many pens.
- Desk drawer: spare parts (for headphones, stylus, etc), spare mouse, tablet, extra post-its, batteries, photo of my husband looking cute… the essentials. I keep this aggressively organized because there is nothing worse than rooting around for twenty minutes trying to find two AA batteries for your dead mouse when you’re already in a time crunch.
- (not pictured) Trash can and paper shredder: Make it easy on yourself to get rid of clutter! But also, don’t look at garbage all day. Shove those bad boys under your desk. Shred, toss, and recycle everything you don’t need. File the rest!
PINK: OUT OF SIGHT / OUT OF REACH
Storage – things I’ll absolutely need later but don’t want getting in my way
- Filing cabinet: For everything you don’t shred! I try to keep my storage no more than a couple chair-scoots away. These are crazy expensive if you buy them new – I got mine from Goodwill for $8.
- Storage cabinet drawers: Another couple chair-scoots away. This contains spare notepads & paper, back-up cords, etc.
- (not pictured) Cozy chair by window: When all other efforts to de-stress have failed, sometimes you need to leave your work/brain-space entirely and just veg. I picked up a super comfy chair + ottoman from a thrift store for about $30 and put it where I can see my desk, but can’t reach over and interact with it. This is where I sit to decompress when my brain feels like it’s on fire after, say, a 14th round of merge field document edits. I also do some of my blogging here, as it feels more relaxed. If your space is shared or does not allow you to leave except for designated breaks, see if you can take an extra trip to the bathroom and splash some water on your face. It’s not a cozy option, but even five minutes away from your workstation can help alleviate stress and burnout.
Hopefully my brain-space makes more sense to you now, and you can use this as an inspiration to reevaluate your own environment. As you go forward, remember that some options that work for me, a work-from home consultant with a magpie pastel-goth design sense, may not work or be accessible for you. Don’t be afraid to get creative, and ask your employer what options you’re allowed. In some cases, you may be able to negotiate reimbursement for necessary work equipment. Above all else, be patient and kind to yourself: crafting a comfortable and efficient workspace is incredibly personal, and not something that happens overnight.