Desk Essentials – Working in Cramped Quarters

What does the ideal home office look like? I imagine a single-purpose room, bathed in natural light and set up with ample, efficient desk space. Just the right amount of shelving and a place for everything. Can you hear the angels singing?

The reality, for me and many other students, is a cramped desk area that shares space with other household functions. A corner of the kitchen, the far end of the dining room table, or, as in my case, a narrow strip squeezed against the wall of a spare bedroom. Using a dual-purpose area for school work means not having much elbow room and needing to re-locate when company comes.

The internet is awash with ideas for creating a small office space. The photos look appealing but bear little resemblance to reality. For example, these dream spaces never seem to have a wastebasket let alone a paper shredder. The desktops generally carry only three items: a tablet computer, a framed photo, and a vase of flowers. In real life, there would be a nest of scribbled notes, a tangle of pens, and several half-full water bottles. There would also be a printer (along with a collection of new and used ink cartridges,) several pads of post-it notes, a stack of books, and, buried underneath, an unpaid bill. Or two.

A confined office space can feel like a curse, but I also view it as a challenge. Periodically, I sit back and take a critical look at my space, exercise my creative right-brain, and find solutions. One early goal was to extend the working surface of my desk. I’m not at all handy with woodworking tools, so this required more creative-thinking than manual-doing. My solution involved a stool, a towel, and a table leaf.

First, the stool: books I am using now sit on a folding stool next to my chair. This gives them priority and keeps them within reach. When my office needs to convert back to a bedroom, the stool is folded away next to my desk. I use a stool meant for sitting on, but a camp stool or foot stool would work as well.

Second, the towel: the flat top of my printer makes a handy assembly point for research articles, papers to be filed, and, often, my ipod. Since I need to lift the printer’s lid on occasion to scan or copy, I use a kitchen towel on top of the printer to create an extra surface. When I need to use the scanner, I lift the towel, carefully cradling the items on top. I replace the whole kit afterwards, and the printer resumes its second function as extra desk space. The towel also keeps dust off the printer, but a piece of stiff cardboard would work here too.

Finally, the leaf: I use a leaf from my dining room table as an extra desk surface. When I’m working on multiple courses or projects this gives me an expanded working area on which to keep books and documents organized and easily accessible. I put the table leaf?any sturdy, smooth board would work?on the bed, but it could sit on top of any stable surface, even the floor or straddling two chairs. When my books need to be tidied away, I lift the whole leaf, books and all, and slide it under the bed.

My desk area is still evolving. It’s easy to get complacent but I try to remind myself to re-examine how I use the space. Right now I’m contemplating those little organizing baskets sold in office supply and dollar stores. My goal is to keep all those desk doodads organized and portable without adding clutter. Next, I’ll ponder wall space. A white board or even a chalkboard is a great tool for capturing creative ideas. And a strip of cork board below the window frame would give me enough space to tack up a few important notes.

For me, it’s important to assess my workspace periodically. After all, I spend a great deal of time at my desk. A few carefully considered creative changes can work to keep school work and other projects flowing smoothly.

Barbara Lehtiniemi is a writer, photographer, and AU student. She lives on a windswept rural road in Eastern Ontario