Essays on Technology and Culture

Working in a Small Space

Eighteen inches by sixteen inches. Roughly two square feet, of which about 40% is taken up by a 15” MacBook Pro. This is my desk. Well, it’s actually a folding table. And it’s in a tiny bedroom, in a tiny two-bedroom apartment, occupied by four people. That’s not a lot of room to work.

My "desk".

At my job, I have a 27” iMac, and a full-sized desk. For what I have to do there, I can make good use of the space. I can keep two browser windows open, side-by-side, or a text editor, and a browser window. Trying to do the same thing at home is a little cramped—but doable. [1] I’d rather be in the office when I work at my job, because it’s a space more conductive to what I have to do, both in terms of hardware and environment. Studies prove it.

At home, when I’m working for myself, it’s a lot easier to fit everything into two square feet, or a 1440×900 display. Working like this, you have to work lighter—less stuff plugged into your machine, for example. [2] Run your software in ways that maximize the space available. Lion’s full-screen mode is made for this, but there’s other tools out there that help as well. Moom is a neat tool that hijacks the Zoom button to display window positioning options. You can even set it to resize your application window on a custom grid. It’s the closest you’ll get to a tiling window manager on OS X.

Another application that helps me maximize desktop space is TotalFinder. This is a small extension to Finder that adds tabs to the UI. It’s especially handy when doing heavy-duty file management. Open a tab for a source, open a tab for a destination, and press ⌘-U. Suddenly, you have a split window, with both your folders side by side. If you’re old-school enough to have used Midnight Commander, this will be instantly familiar.

Putting things away when you don’t need them, or aren’t using them is essential when working and living in a small space. The same goes for a computer. Spirited Away is an old, small, simple menu bar app that hides windows after you haven’t been using them for a while—one minute by default. You can tell it to ignore an application, but I typically allow it to put everything away. It’s just easier and more relaxing to step away from using something to find a clean desktop when I get back.

You don’t need these tools to work big on a small space, but they help. At the bare minimum, you need to just know where your windows are, what apps are running. You need to use tools that do one thing exceedingly well, and you need to think hard before adding something else to your environment. No matter how powerful, how fast, or how much storage our tiny machines have, they work better and last longer if you run with a lot of head room, and it makes your life easier too.

  1. I tried it before with my old 13” MacBook nothing, and not only was it more cramped, but it was also more strain on the hardware.  ↩

  2. I plug a 1TB, USB powered external drive into my MacBook when I want to listen to music. I also have a Magic Mouse, as you can see in the picture, but I only use it when I need precision, like for audio editing.  ↩