I’ve been lucky enough in my career as a web developer to be able to work from home quite a lot. Even though I live in the Atlanta “area”, it would still take me over an hour to get to an office, which always seemed crazy. Thankfully, for the last few years I’ve worked for firms that allowed me to be remote most, if not all, of the time.
Then the pandemic hit, and so many more folks made their homes their workplaces as well. For me, at first, things didn’t seem that different. I was already only going to the office once a month, if that. But then I started feeling different. Even though I was working from home as always, there was the added twist that we couldn’t leave the house. That, coupled with the omnipresent gloom of the political situation at the time, things started feeling bleak. Days started to drag on and blur into one another. Every day felt like the one before it. I was really starting to let it get to me, but then I remembered something.
I’ve always been a huge believer in the idea that the space you work in should make you happy. Even if your current job doesn’t bring you joy, even if you feel like you’re not getting anywhere, it’s so important to surround yourself with things that make you smile. So in the last year, I’ve made a real effort to make my home office a place that feels more like a retreat than something I’m retreating from.
A Quick Tour
My home office is a spare bedroom in our house, facing the street. It has two windows and gets the early morning light. It’s about 12 feet square with a closet. Nothing special, really. When we first moved in almost four years ago, it was kind of a jumble, with basically my old office just dropped into it. I’ve made a lot of changes that I’ll share, with many more to come.
On the wall with the windows, I have three sections of Ikea Kallax cube shelves that hold my turntable, stereo and growing record collection, along with a TV.
On another is a giant Kallax unit (you’ll see a pattern here) with 25 cubes filled with books and toys. Then there’s my (currently neglected) art table and a comfy chair for reading and writing. The fourth wall has stacked Kallax shelves with drawer and door inserts that hold paperwork, electronics and various other junk I’d rather not see every day. Inset into the closet is my desk. The closet wasn’t really serving much purpose, and removing the doors and using it as a desk nook freed up so much space.
Speaking of my desk, let’s start there. At the start of the pandemic, my desk was just an Ikea tabletop with legs. That’s it. Once we’d been on lockdown a couple months, I decided I should be more comfortable. I was also having back pain, but unsure if I wanted to spend the money on a motorized standing desk just yet. And since I’m also a woodworker…I built my own.
It wasn’t bad, but it also wasn’t adjustable, so it was “up” all the time. I tried to find stools that worked, but nothing was doing my back any good. So I bit the bullet and bought a standing desk from Fully, a purchase I 100% recommend. And shortly thereafter, I bought a really nice gaming chair from Secret Lab. The “Dark Knight” edition, of course.
The “desk nook” is still a work in progress. So far I’ve added a section of french cleats and built a rack to hold both my personal and work Macbooks. That solved an issue that’s plagued me for years, which was a) finding a place to put two laptops and b) getting monitor, headphone and usb cables switched every time I wanted to use the other machine.
I’ve found that a lot of making an office a happy place is just removing/reducing barriers. Eliminating even a small frustration makes your day a little more pleasant. Soon I hope to refinish the walls of the closet and paint them flat black. Maybe hang up some art or movie posters. I’ve hung lights inside the closet opening, but hope to replace them someday with color-changing LED lights.
As for the standing desk, I try to alternate at least a couple times a day between sitting and standing, just to change things up and give my back a break. I tend to stand more in the morning while I’m doing mindless things and having meetings, then sit the rest of the day when I need focus.
I mentioned my record collection earlier. While I still have a decent amount of records from my childhood, I’ve only really been actively building a collection for the past few years. I listen to all kinds of stuff, but I’d say at least half the collection is movie soundtracks. I love a good movie score, and they’re great to work to.
Listening to records during the day has the added benefit of giving you a reason to stand up, if only to flip a record. It’s a good reminder to get up, stretch and flip through the stack for the next one. If you don’t have a record collection or even a turntable, it can be intimidating to start. But you don’t need to be an audiophile. Start off with a cheap all-in-one player from Target and start picking up used vinyl at your local shop, eBay or sites like Discogs. Trust me, vinyl can be great therapy.
In addition to records, I still stream my fair share from Spotify or SiriusXM. My stereo receiver has bluetooth, so I can still listen through good speakers. My musical tastes range all over, but I also have playlists dedicated to just “happy songs”. Stuff that’s bouncy, fun or silly. Songs that make me play drums with my feet and can make slogging through lines of code not so bad.
One thing I’ve always done in my home offices has been burning scented candles. Not only does a flickering candle just make a room feel better, but the right smells can change your mood. A candle can unlock nostalgia receptors in your brain, especially during the holidays. It’s early February as I write this and I still have a “holiday spruce” candle going. No matter the time of year, a pine or cinnamon-scented candle will always make me feel better. Plus, I have a couple battery-powered candles around for ambience.
On a related topic, don’t discount lighting in your space. Having bad lighting can adversely affect your mood, not to mention your eyesight. But that doesn’t mean your office has to be blazing with light. After all, one of the worst aspects about working in an on-site office is the lighting, so you should have a well-lit environment at home.
Right now, my lighting is sort of a hodge-podge. I have a ceiling fan that was here when we bought the house, with a yellow-tinted light fixture. If I’m honest, I hate it, but haven’t had a chance to deal with it. On my desk is a cool adjustable lamp I found at a consignment shop, in addition to the Edison bulb strings around the inside of the closet opening. It’s ample light to work by most of the time. And I’ve also got a nice lamp by my reading chair.
While I don’t advocate having a whole pantry in your office (we need some reason to leave the room), I like having a selection of snacks or candy within reach. I rotate through different goodies from candy canes to suckers to ribbon candy to chocolate kisses.
Like with records, it’s a good excuse to stand up, grab something sweet and stretch a bit. As you’ll see, I’m steeped in nostalgia, so some of my favorite things are these lolly pops that remind me so much of the suckers my grandpa used to buy me. They’re not exactly the same thing, but darn close.
Make it Comfortable
It goes without saying that your home office should have a comfortable chair. We’re all spending so much time at our desks, we owe it to our backs to invest in the best we can afford. But aside from that, the space you work in should just feel comfortable.
I recently moved a comfy leather reading chair into my office, with a nice lamp beside it. That area is warm and inviting and every now and then I like to take a break and just sit there and chill, maybe with a laptop, maybe with a book. I used to have a reading area in our bedroom, but it never felt right. Here, I can sit and read or write (as I’m writing this) and be surrounded by things I love. I’m also thinking about getting a small bean bag chair or similar to sit on the floor and read comics or album liners (remember that?).
Toys & Stuff
On the topic of surrounding yourself with things that make you happy, one of the biggest ways I do that is to fill the room with toys. Some are tchotchkes, but most are literal toys. Many of my shelf cubbies are full of little displays and dioramas containing all manner of them.
I’ve got everything from action figures from my childhood to modern Pop figures to stuffed animals. And throughout are scattered lots of books, mostly art books and comic collections. Around New Year’s I pulled everything off and redid each cube, just to keep things fresh. I think that’ll be my new yearly tradition.
Every single thing on those shelves is some sort of connection, some memory. And everywhere I look, there’s something that makes me smile.
It’s not all about toys, though. One cubby is dedicated to things from my late grandpa, which is extra special. One might look at that giant wall of square boxes and think, what a bunch of junk. But I see some of the best parts of my life that have made me the happiest, and what I am today.
It’s funny, but as a lifelong artist, I don’t have that much art on the walls. I’ve never really hung my own stuff, nor bought much from other artists. That definitely needs remedied. But I do have a few things that I enjoy looking at, like an original pencil sketch of Bugs Bunny drawn by Chuck Jones himself.
Movies have always been a huge part of my life, so I also have a few movie posters, two of which are my favorite movies, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jaws. I hope to add a couple more soon, hopefully The Empire Strikes Back and The Goonies.
But your walls don’t have to be adorned with movies and cartoon characters. Hang up what makes you happy. Find an artist you love on Instagram, find their Etsy store and buy a piece or two for your office. You won’t regret it.
Keep It Clean
This one is huge for me. One of the most important things about creating a space that makes you happy is to keep it clean and organized. Yes, we all get busy with deadlines and let the clutter and coffee cups pile up to the point of small ecosystems populating them (Okay, that’s just me then, sure). But I believe how you feel in your space is a reflection of the state of that space. If it’s constantly disorganized and chaotic, you’ll feel that way too.
So I try to straighten up a little each day so it doesn’t get away from me. Have a trash can to collect Clif bar wrappers, take your mugs and dishes to the kitchen at the end of the day. They say that a messy desk is a sign of genius. I call BS on that. Maybe some can work better in chaos, but I think it’s better for the mind to have a little more order.
A Little Better All the Time
The last thing I’ll add is to keep making improvements to your space over time. I’m always thinking of little improvements I can make, or something I can add to either make my work easier or my mind lighter while in this space. I realize not everyone has the luxury of a dedicated room for their office, much less filling it with all the things I have (which didn’t just appear overnight, mind you). But that’s not the point.
It doesn’t matter if your space is a spare bedroom, your master bedroom, a closet, your living room sofa or your kitchen table. Make it comfortable. Make it inviting. Fill it with things that make you happy. I know what that looks like for me, but what does it mean for you?
Bonus: Go to lunch
One last thing I’ll share: make sure you go to lunch. It sounds obvious, but I know from experience how easy it is to get in a zone and completely forget about lunch (or wait way too long to take one). I think it’s imperative that we take that time mid-day to get out of the office and grab a bite. I use it as time to reset my brain, especially if I’ve been working on something particularly complex. I usually will have leftovers from the night before or a PB&J and watch some Youtube videos on the living room TV.
And by the way, lunch hour is a great time to take a nice nap. And lastly, try to take the whole hour. Rushing through lunch or eating at your desk doesn’t do anyone any good, except maybe your employer. You’re given an hour…take it.
Okay, that’s it! I’d love to see how others are making their home offices their happy place. Tag me in photos on Instagram.