Creative Desks versus Administration Desks

For many of us, desks are where a lot of life happens. I realized about a year ago that psychologically, there are two different types of desks, which most people combine into one physical desk.

The two types are creative desks and administration desks.

Even if you have multiple desks (at home and at the workplace for instance) chances are, you combine both psychological types in each.

Creative desks are where you do serious maker work. Writing, coding, design, pen-and-paper math, spreadsheet analysis and so forth.

Administration desks are where you do all the overhead stuff. Expense reports, invoicing, book-keeping, contract signing, faxing, filing, travel arrangements, GTDing, certain kinds of email and calendaring, and so forth.

The two don’t go well together because people who get a high off  creative work are generally depressed by administration work, and vice-versa.  Basic systems and processes are also different around the two desks. If you consider emotion/energy aspects and system-process aspects, you could say that the two types represent very different field-flow complexes, with different tempos. Mixing them up results in a cacophony.

So how can you cope with both kinds of work? The solution is to separate the psychological desks physically to the extent you can afford to.

If you are like most people, you don’t have an administration assistant. At best you share an admin with a dozen or more people, and the person is more like an administration coach and facilitator rather than a true brings-you-coffee type assistant. If you are a free-agent, and you have a virtual assistant, chances are, you can only carve out a small piece of the administration pie (calendaring say) to outsource.

Paper is a big factor in an administration desk even today. As a relatively new independent consultant, I have to constantly be printing off, signing and scanning contracts and NDAs,  mailing paper checks to my bank, filing away paper documents (there is still a significant fraction of work that cannot be done digitally for practical or legal reasons).

I don’t mind admitting I hate this work. I thought going free agent would free me from the paperwork and bureaucratic hassles of a paycheck job, but I am discovering (rather stupid of me not to anticipate this), that you actually have to deal with more paperwork and bureaucratic hassles.  I am in the ugly phase of the growth of my business where I have enough going on to generate a lot of overhead, but not enough that I can afford to hire an assistant.

The first step in fixing your life is to separate the two desks.

The creative desk is very easy for most people. It is just your laptop. You can take it with you anywhere and work. Physically, my creative desk is whatever uncluttered surface I can set my laptop down on in a pleasant place. The only place that is excluded is my administration desk. In general, my creative desk of the day might be a random Starbucks table, a co-working location or a hotel room.

My administration desk is my home office. It’s a corner of my home office with a desk, a chair, a couple of shelves, a couple of fileboxes, a printer and a scanner. There are office supplies here: a stapler, pens, erasers, paper clips, mailing supplies.  Administration desks can be shared among multiple people, so long as each person has separate room for paper inboxes and filing.

Since I dislike administration work, I have to literally force myself to do an administration-desk session now and again.

I once tried to eliminate the home desk altogether, and discovered that administration work is simply not very portable. You cannot carry all you need to Starbucks. So you need a static location. On business trips, I simply defer administration work by dumping relevant material into a folder in my backpack, until I get back.

There are times when I wish for a fixed creative desk either: large, with big screens, a large writing/drawing surface (maybe even an easel), good lighting, a whiteboard, and an armchair nearby for reading, armed with a coffee or single malt. This is really a studio.

So my ideal work situation would be an administration office, staffed by a part-time administrative assistant who comes in physically (my life wouldn’t benefit much from a virtual assistant) a couple of times a week, and where I can also do my own administration work when needed. There would be a completely separate (other end of the home would be ideal) studio. I’d spend maybe 15% of my time in the administration office, 35% in the studio and 50% mobile, working at a cafe or something.

Unfortunately I move too often and cannot yet afford this kind of set-up. But if you can, you should get yourself set up this way.

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  1. Austin Kleon has said something similar, though he has as analog desk and a digit desk. In his case, the analog desk is where he does his most creative work. More here.

  2. Alex Ragus says

    I’ve used two separate desks for several years now, but my attempts to confine each to one type of work always fail. One reason is that for creative work, location switching helps, so I will often move from one desk to the other in the middle of a long creative stretch just to take a walk in between the two and change scenery.

    My organization desk has many shelves, my creative desk is a big flat surface. But administrative organization can really benefit from visual layout of different categories…so I bring files and papers to my big flat empty desk sometimes.

    This mixing has never bothered me much, but I probably enjoy both types of work more than most people do.

  3. I’ve been developing this same distinction over the past six months or so without explicitly labeling it as such. For a while I tried to do my writing at the desk I thought of as my primary desk. Gradually I realized that my mind ground to a halt when trying to do any focused creative work in that location.

    I now use an empty table with just my laptop, or even better – just paper and pen, for any creative work that requires intentional focus. I’ve also realized that the large monitor is usually more of a distraction than a benefit for most focused creative work.

    The 24″ monitor leaves more extraneous background visible, more icons, more space in which to stack up distractions. It’s great for visual tasks and great when I need to cross reference between windows, but I actually prefer the small screen when trying to stay focused on writing.

    Ideally I would like to put more distance between these two locations…currently they are both in the same living/dining room space and within line of sight of each other. For now it is off to the coffee shop when I need to create psychological distance.

    • Interesting point about large monitors. Microsoft Research claims that it has dramatic increases on productivity, but I think that’s for very specific professions like graphic design and programming.

      And yeah, I am big on separating the two as much as possible as well. If I can ever afford it, I’d like to basically rent “studio space” a short walk (like a few blocks, preferably a nice walk past some water and a coffeeshop) away, and keep my admin work at a home office.

      • The large monitor would offer more benefit for writing tasks if it rotated to vertical. Being able to see a full post on screen without scrolling probably would increase productivity. The widescreen doesn’t offer a meaningful upgrade in terms of vertical resolution compared to a 15″ laptop screen.

  4. One key to a successful distinction between the creative desk and the administrative desk might be to ruthlessly purge the files of the latter on a regular periodic basis. I move files from a monthly drawer in the desk to a semi-annual shelf nearby, then to a cabinet with two drawers (current second half of the year and last year). I purge the bottom drawer annually of anything I haven’t used in the past twelve months, excepting documents that must be retained by law. Those go into one of three banker’s boxes stored in the closet: Destroy in five years, destroy in ten years, or retain permanently. So far (after ten years of implimentation) I have only one “permanent” box. Locating a particular document might take a bit of rooting around in any of these locations, but it becomes a progressively rarer requirement with the passage of time.