14 Tips for Designing a Highly Productive Home Office (GTD Friendly)

UPDATE: I got a tweet from David Allen, the GTD author himself, saying this was “Very Cool” – made my day 🙂

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I recently moved to a new apartment where I (finally!) got my own room to set up as a home office. I’ve been a hardcore follower of GTD for quite a while, so I wanted to make sure I take the lessons learned over the years from my personal experience, and design the perfect home office from the ground-up. For those who don’t know what GTD is, it is a bestselling book by David Allen called “Getting Things Done” which helps you organize your life. If you haven’t read it, make sure you do; it is hands-down the best book on productivity that you’ll ever read.

Before I delve into the details, I want to make a few comments.

First, although I’m a Cisco employee, Cisco does not compensate me for mentioning any Cisco products in this post (on that note, and as applicable to this entire blog, all the comments made by me are my own views and not those of Cisco).

Second, I’ve included links to the products I own so that you won’t have to waste time researching for them if you like them (disclosure – some of those are affiliate links).

Third, keep in mind that I have designed the perfect office for me – someone who’s uber-obsessed with productivity. Given that I’m usually quite busy running multi-million dollar projects, pursuing graduate studies, participating in the community and contributing to a few side hobbies – all mainly from home – every minute wasted counts against spending more time with my family and friends, which I enjoy the most. Hence, I’ve designed my workspace in such a way as to save time and increase productivity from every possible angle. Having said that, some of the tips might be a little bit overboard for you and you don’t really need to apply all of them. Use what you need and modify accordingly.

Here’s a photo of my newly-minted home office. The numbers in the picture refer to the tips below (you might want open the pic in a new window so you view it in full-size as you read through).

  1. The PC: 90% of my time is spent on my laptop, so it’s positioned front and center, and everything else revolves around me being fixated in that spot most of the time. I use a Lenovo Thinkpad T410 laptop with a docking station, which hooks up to a nice 22 inch DELL external monitor and a wireless full-sized Logitech keyboard & mouse. If you work from home, investing in a docking station & laptop combination is the best investment you’ll make. Unlike a desktop, you’re not stuck to your desk for life (and can work remotely when you want to), and unlike a standalone laptop, you’re not bound to a 14 inch screen and a tight keyboard 10 hours a day. I also use a high-quality Logitech webcam that fits nicely on my monitor (important for video-conferencing meetings).
  2. Second PC: Some customers I work with require that I use one of their company-issued laptops for security purposes. I’m usually not a big fan of that, as it becomes a hassle to manage multiple email accounts, calendars, and contact lists, but when I have to, I put it right there in my field of vision so I don’t keep turning my head 20 times an hour.
  3. Phone: I use a Cisco 7975G IP phone. For couch managers, I can think of no other better phone, especially since it synchs up really well with my WebEx Connect softphone when I’m on the road. Two things to note here. First, I have my phone within an arm’s reach to make and receive calls quickly without moving from my seat, and second, it’s close enough where people can hear me when using the speakerphone. I also have a headset hanging on the wall above the phone, which I use when I need to have a conversation while I’m moving around in the room.
  4. In-Basket: This is my collection basket where I dump everything that needs processing at a later time: unopened envelopes, follow-up receipts, hand written notes, etc. I usually empty it out every couple of days to keep it clean and ready for more stuff. I use a 3-level letter tray with compartments that pull out for accessing documents.
  5. Vertical Folder Sorter: I use a 6-slot incline sorter to keep all my current project files and folders easily accessible so I don’t always have to pull them out of the cabinet drawers. I also keep some new manila folders (which have 3 assorted-position tabs for easier reading) in the front slot so that I can quickly label them and dump in any new reference material.
  6. Notepad & Pen: I ALWAYS have a pen and paper close by. If I’m taking down notes on a call, I usually prefer writing than typing on my PC (in some cases, it is my only choice since typing makes a lot of clicking noises that bothers listeners on the call). Anything I write ends up in my in-basket for further processing.
  7. Wastebasket & Shredder: I have a wastebasket and paper shredder close by as well so that I don’t have to walk up to either of them (plus, I’m a terrible shooter with those paper balls)!
  8. Stationery & Labeler: All my stationery – pens, pencils, stapler, puncher, clips, scissors, letter opener, and rubber bands – are on two shelves within an arm’s reach, but I like to keep them  elevated to remove the clutter from my desk. I also have a Dymo labeler for labeling all my folders and boxes. You’ll be surprised at how big a difference this little tool makes in organizing your life. Buy one.
  9. Filing Cabinet: This is where I store all my file folders. I have a cabinet with two drawers, the top is for all material labeled “A through G” and the bottom one is for “H through Z.” I use hanging folders, and drop the manila folders in them (I never label the hanging folders, – only the manila folders themselves). The black storage unit next to the cabinet drawers is used for storing additional copy paper, folders, and other stuff.
  10. Storage Boxes & Shelves: I installed several wooden shelves to make use of all the dead space on the walls above the desk.  I also use storage boxes that come in two sizes, small and large, to store electronics, cables, receipts, batteries, CDs/ DVDs, extra stationery – you name it. All nicely tucked away. For slightly larger things that don’t fit into boxes, like manuals, gift wrap, coursework notebooks and mailing materials, I use standing magazine file organizers. I label everything so I know exactly what’s where.
  11. Routers & Modem: I have a Cisco Series 800 router (used for my secure virtual office), a Cisco Valet Plus router (for wirelessly connecting my personal devices) and a Motorola Cable modem for connecting to my ISP. I keep them away from me because I rarely touch them, and the soft humming noises bother me when they’re close.
  12. Workspace Area: I have two sturdy desks than I lined up together: a corner desk and a regular one, and I keep a workspace area on my right always clean for when I need to use it.
  13. Chair & Floor Protector: I sit for hours on end at my desk, so I have a comfortable swivel chair, and a floor protector underneath which helps with sliding around smoothly from one spot to the other (and avoids those coffee stains on the carpet!).
  14. Wireless All-in-One Printer: I use a Canon Pixma MX350 Wireless Printer. If you’ve never had a wireless printer before, upgrade to one. Nothing like being able to print and scan from anywhere around the house without worrying about plugging it in.

And there you have it! If you’d like to receive more helpful tips about managing your work from home, subscribe to my blog’s RSS Feed.

The 3 Types of Responses to Questions: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Nearly every single response to every single question I’ve ever asked someone in a meeting, phone call or email can be classified under one of three categories: one’s good, the other’s bad, and the third’s ugly. The good is when someone answers the question first, and then gives additional information afterwards. The bad is when they do it the other way around. The ugly is when they never answer the question.

Here’s a visual to explain the difference.


Here’s an explanation of why you need to always go with the good.

THE UGLY: If you’re a CEO or a politician answering the media, then I understand why you need to go with the ugly. Otherwise, for the love of God, answer the question.

THE BAD: While this is much better than the ugly, the frustrating thing about the bad is that makes the listener work hard to figure out what the answer is. Even if you get to the answer at the end, the fact that you’ve started out your discussion with your grandfather’s history, and then talked about your mom’s meatloaf recipe,  leads to ambiguity and uncertainty on the listener’s side – particularly in a virtual setting. As a manager in a company or a business owner, that could be detrimental to a team.

THE GOOD: In most situations, starting out with a direct and straightforward answer is the best way to go. The most effective type of answer is one which summarizes the point succinctly first, and then gives any other supporting or background information afterwards. Technically, there are only four types of responses to a question, so to save everyone time and frustration, make sure you start your answer with one of the following options:

  1. The Answer ( “Cindy Mitchell is the person you need to talk to…”)
  2. Yes ( “Yes, I do need that report tomorrow…”)
  3. No ( “No, I did not understand what you just said…”)
  4. Maybe/ I don’t know/ I’m not sure (“I don’t know who is responsible for that task…”)

As a side tip, if you have to answer with #4, it’s always a good idea to continue your sentence with “…but what I do know is…” For example, if someone asks about the fastest directions to get to downtown Boston from Brookline, a good answer would be: “I’m not sure what the fastest way is, but what I do know is that if you catch a bus to the Cleveland Circle Station, you’ll be there in 45 minutes.

Know of any other frustrating responses to questions? Let me know in the comments section below!

5 Annoying Replies That Don’t Require “Reply All”

One pet peeve that I share with a lot of people I know is the use of “Reply All” in email – especially when every recipient on the mailing list doesn’t need to be included in the response.

It’s very frustrating and such a waste of time having to click through useless back and forth email chatter when the topic doesn’t apply to me. The problem is that because I’m copied on the email chain, I falsely assume that I have to read all the messages and therefore I cannot just ignore them. In my previous job, this caused such a major productivity issue that the company literally removed the “Reply All” button and hid it so that employees think twice about using the feature.

If you’re the person replying back, there is only one simple, obvious rule that you need to follow: Don’t use “reply all” if only the original sender needs to read your message.

Of course, there are many situations where it makes sense to respond back to everyone on the list, such as for brainstorming ideas or for updating working documents. However, most cases don’t require that everyone read what you have to say, especially if it’s one of the following 5 annoying replies that frequently come up:

Have you experienced any other annoying reply all’s? Let me know in the comments section below!

Japanese Perfection and Why You Need to be Specific in Your Requests

I’m reading a book called “Reframing Organizations” by Lee Bolman & Terrence Deal (Jossey-Bass, 2008) for an Organizational Behavior course I’m taking and I came across a hilarious section which refers to an encounter between two companies in the 1970s or 1980s. The first is an American company which needed ball bearings and the second is a Japanese plant that made them.

Here’s what apparently happened:

Although the book’s main point was more about the difference in company standards between both countries, I couldn’t help but map this back to miscommunication in virtual teams.

This nearly always happens. One party sends a request without being descriptive enough, and the other party acts on it without following up.

Here are a couple of lessons learned for both companies that we can all learn from:

American Company: Be explicit with your orders. Elaborating on the request by saying something like “We’d like all those ball bearings to be perfectly shaped, but we’ll be ok if you send us up to 20 defective ones” might have reduced the time to make them.

Japanese Plant: If you’re not too sure about the order, ask before you start working on it. You wasted time making an additional 20 defective ball bearings! Oh, and ease up on the perfectionism, will you?

7 Parts to the Perfect Voice Message

If you run your own business or manage a team, you probably leave more than a handful of voice messages each day on your clients’ or colleagues’ phones. To make sure that you communicate your message clearly and minimize any miscommunication, you’ll want to make sure you craft the perfect voice message. Here’s a sample with the 7 parts you’ll need:

  1. Greeting: Say their name – it’ll grab their attention and minimize the possibility they think you’re some telemarketer.
  2. Your Info: Say your name as well (and the company you work for if you’re calling a business client). Make sure it’s your full name – too many Peters around.
  3. The Time & Date: Nearly all phone services have the option to retrieve the time you called someone, but no one has the patience to go through that menu, so do the person a favor and tell them when you called in case they got the message later in the day or the next morning.
  4. The Subject: State the reason why you’re calling and what you want to let the person know. Be concise – no one wants to hear a life story here.
  5. The Action Item: Do you want them to call you back ASAP? Then say so. Do you want them to listen to an FYI (For Your Information)? Then say so. Do you want them to do something for you like create a report and send it before the next day? Then say so. Always have an action, or state a lack thereof.
  6. Your Number: Even if you don’t think the person you’re calling should call you back, always leave your number – they might need it. E-N-U-N-C-I-A-T-E and speak slowly. You can also mention when it’s best to call you back and the time zone you’re in if you have a preference.
  7. Your Number Again: Chances are that even though you spoke slowly the first time, the person would have fondled to find a pen and missed writing your number down anyway. Although they can replay the voice message to hear it again, you’ll win major cool points if you repeat it for them at the end.
 

No one has the patience to go through the option menu to retrieve the time and date you called, so do the person a favor and tell them when you called. This puts things into context if multiple voice messages have been left.

How I saved 15 minutes a week from emails in 2 simple steps

Every email I’ve written has started and ended with something similar to the following:

So I looked at the facts:

  • I write around 20 to 30 emails a day
  • I type at a rate of 50 words per minute
  • The greeting (“Hey John”) and signature (“Regards, Hassan”) cost me around 5 seconds per email
  • That’s a waste of around 15 minutes each week

So here’s how I saved that time in two simple steps:

  1. Dropped the Greeting: For the greeting, I emailed those I regularly correspond with that I’m going to drop the “Hey/ Dear/ Hi You” part. It was just a waste of time typing “Dear Jane” if you were the only two communicating anyway. Some might think that’s offensive, but not if you tell them you’re going to do it ahead of time. A simple note saying “Hey – given that we email each other regularly, I thought we could both save some time dropping the greeting formalities from our future emails – just like we do through SMS” helps put things in perspective. You can also just link them to this post to save yourself the trouble of explaining 🙂
  2. Automated the Signature: For the signature, I automated it so I don’t have to retype it in every email. Nearly all email clients have the signature feature – here’s how to add it in Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, or Outlook. This isn’t really an innovation as most people already use signatures, but most add only their name. They still waste time retyping “Regards,” “Best,” “Sincerely,” “Take Care,” or “Cheers,” in every message, so adding that courtesy line to your signature makes sense. Extra tip: You can also add an empty line space before your signature to avoid hitting the “Enter” button after every message.

There are a couple of caveats to dropping the greeting. First, do it only if you’re emailing someone one-on-one. If you’re emailing multiple people, even if they’re on CC, it could get confusing as to who you’re directing the message to. Second, this applies to individuals you email regularly and have already established a relationship with. I wouldn’t drop the greeting when emailing a new business client or someone you infrequently correspond with.

8 Interpretations of Silence when using Instant Messaging

I use Instant Messaging (IM) a lot in my job to manage my team and connect with friends. I love it because I have the unparalleled advantage of multi-tasking different conversations with so many people at once. Of course, it does have a few drawbacks, but overall, I still think it’s a valuable tool in the arsenal of online communication – particularly for couch managers.

However, there is one pet peeve that most individuals share when using online chat: Silence

I’m not referring to the natural pauses that occur during a normal back & forth online conversation, but rather to the (sometimes intentional) disappearing act that people choose to do after reading an IM message.

Here’s a typical online chat session:

Person A: Hey!
Person B: Hey, what’s up?
Person A: Nothing much, things are going great so far
<Some more small talk>
Person A: Quick question. Regarding the budget report and status update we discussed last week, I wanted to follow up on where we stand with that. Do you have something you’d like to share before our meeting this afternoon? I don’t feel I have all the info I need before discussing them with the client.
Person B: *Silence* (for quite a while)
Person A: Still there??
Person B: *More Silence*

Here are 8 interpretations that go on inside Person A’s mind:

So basically, Person A starts making assumptions and acting upon those assumptions, and that almost always leads to miscommunication issues.

Here are 3 lessons learned for Person B to save everyone time and frustration:

  1. If you’ve read the message, for the love of God, type out what you’re thinking. Even if you’re hesitant to answer, a simple “Let me think about it,”  or “I’ll get back to you” would be much more appreciated compared to the agonizing feeling of wondering whether you read the message or not.
  2. If you haven’t read the message, then type a quick “brb” before stepping out or set your status to automatically update to “Busy” or “Away.”
  3. If you got disconnected while in the middle of a chat conversation, a courteous follow up with a call or email to let Person A know you might have missed a message would help a lot. Surprisingly, with all the technology we have to date, a lot of those IM clients don’t always update your online/ offline status in real time, so one can’t always tell if you dropped off before you got the last message.