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The desk in the closet.

How it all got started

Most people self-organize with little reference to the physical location of things. Oh, sure, they'll have a few piles of papers on their desk, and a handful of post-its on their monitor - but if you move their piles around, it doesn't have any real impact on their effectiveness.

But there are others, myself included, who are very attuned to the physical location of their things. The specific location of a physical item - and whether it's rotated, upside down, or on top of something else - provides detailed information about the object, and related (or even unrelated) activities. They'll place a dried-up whiteboard marker on its base (rather than lying on its side) as a reminder to buy more when they go to the office supply store the next afternoon.

And at times, they'll put an object in a location that is completely out of context - like a potato chip bag clip on top of a pile of letters to be mailed - because seeing the errant chip clip will remind them of the underlying (pun intended) activity that would otherwise pass unnoticed in a sea of objects.

But there's a catch.

Living in a home with two small children, a wife who likes things put away, a fluffy puppy, and a person who helps clean the house, this method is completely untenable. Carefully aligned objects, each with its own layers of meaning, are summarily knocked off the table, rearranged into a pile, and/or cleared.

Photo of a shelf placed at shoulder height in a closet, being used to hold a PowerBook, books, papers, and frequently-used cables. Desk is 4 feet by 18 inches, and 5 1/2 feet off of the floor

And the one day, in a fit of invention, I grabbed an old Formica shelf from the garage and installed it in the office closet at about 5'5" (1.65m) off the floor. As I'm well over 6' tall, I could reach it - but nobody else could. Nirvana.

Building your own

First off, this is designed to be a standing desk, which can be great for the back after sitting for long periods. But it helps if you're taller than everyone else in the house; otherwise, you may want to consider a bar stool or step stool instead.

Building the desk

Start with a standard white melamine shelf, like you can find at any hardware or building materials store. Mount it using angle brackets, or as I did here, by supporting it on top of an existing shelf.

Make sure the back edge is flush with the wall, so that things don't slip down into the crack.

Mount cork board squares (the thicker the better) on the wall with extra-strong tape, not the tape that comes in the package.

Organizing the goods

Keep your desktop as clean as possible; any item sitting on the desk should have a reason for being there.

Alway leave space on your desk for a notepad and a pen, so you can GSD without having to move things out of the way.

Never 'drive by' and drop things directly onto your desktop; rather, make sure you (and your family) use the 'Single inbox'.

Use the cork board for things that inspire or excite you - concert tickets, photos, clippings - and use GSD for the to-do's.

Bonus points

If possible, bring electricity to your desk with plenty of outlets for your laptop, phone, and a small task lamp from IKEA.

Caveats and a bonus

As with everything, however, there are a few downsides to this whole scheme:

Standing at the desk can be tiresome for some people
People will find it strange that you have a desk in the closet
Your family likely won't be able to reach the Single Inbox, so they'll stack crap right on your desktop
Um, you're spending part of your day staring into the closet

One of the unexpected and most useful aspects of the closet desk has been that it provides a great sense of focus
Since everything is right where I put it the last time I was at the desk, my brain doesn't have to try and parse all of those objects, which helps me to focus on the task at hand

An update

All good things must come to an end, and we moved house. I tried to recreate the closet desk in the new house, but the space I allocated doesn't seem to be wide enough. Lesson learned: make the desk (and the opening to access it) at least three feet (1m) wide.


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