How to Set Up a Productive Virtual Workspace

You’re mobile, you work perhaps with multiple Operating Systems, and your work is entirely digital these days. But the pull of distractions on the Internet can ruin anyone’s productivity.

To be able to do your work from any computer, set up a virtual workspace online that will keep you productive, giving you quick access to what you need without all the distractions.

There are as many different ways to do this as there are virtual workers, and each of us has different needs and different favorite tools. But what I outline below are some ideas and an example setup that could help guide you in creating your own productive virtual workspace.

Let’s first take a look at what a virtual workspace would need:

1. Completely online. You need access to your documents anywhere, any time. So your software and storage should be online solutions.

2. Email, calendar, to-dos, notes. These are things you need to access any time, all the time. They are the tools of your virtual office.

3. Distraction-free. When you’re ready to work, you need to be able to clear away distractions. It’s like clearing off your desk so you can focus on the task before you.

Now let’s look at some ways to set up your virtual workspace to meet those needs:

Simplify your needs. In order to work completely online, you’ll need to be able to simplify what you need to work down to the bare essentials. Do you really need a full-featured word processor such as Microsoft Word? These full-featured software often have way more features than we really need. The only things I use in a word processor, for example, are typing, simple formatting such as bold, italics and lists, spell check and word count. If you can simplify your essential software needs like this, you can use online software.

Use Firefox. OK, this isn’t necessary, actually. There are other great browsers out there, such as Safari and Opera, but I like Firefox for its add-ons and shortcuts, both of which add to productivity. Your add-ons will vary depending on your needs, but keyboard shortcuts and keyword bookmarks are a must (see below).

Google Docs. As a writer, I do all my writing on Google Docs these days. It’s simple, it’s got all the features I need, and it works perfectly. Google Spreadsheets is far from this, but still it meets my most basic spreadsheet needs (I’m not an accountant). Zoho Office Suite also works well, and there are other online software out there. You might also try Writer, which is just about the simplest online word processor.

Email and Calendar. I would recommend you use an online solution for both of these. I use Gmail and Gcal, but really you could use whatever works for you — Hotmail or Yahoo Mail are both good solutions, for example, that also have calendars. 30 Boxes is another popular online calendar. For Gmail, I would recommend that you use the Delegate to Gcal extension, so anytime you get an email with an event or appointment you’d like to add to your calendar, you can do so in one click. For Gcal, I would also add the Quick Add extension so that you can add calendar events with a simple keystroke combination.

Storage: You need to be able to access your files from anywhere. If you’re using Google Docs and Spreadsheets or a similar online solution, you might not have a lot of files left. But still, you’ll probably have some. Sign up for an online storage service such as so that you can easily upload your files and access them from any computer.

To-dos. There are dozens of good online to-do programs out there. Some of my favorites are Backpack, Simple GTD, Vitalist, Nozbe.

iGoogle – the Setup: My suggested virtual workspace setup uses iGoogle (the artist formerly known as Google Homepage), but you could use a number of different homepage options, such as the popular Netvibes. The same rules apply to any of them. Set up your iGoogle homepage with the following gadgets:

  • Google Docs: Add the Google Docs gadget to give you access to your most recent documents. If you’re like me, this will be one of your most-used gadgets in your workspace.
  • Today list: There are plenty of to-do list gadgets. Choose your favorite, preferably a simple one. Now, I know you already have a full-featured to-do list service (see above), but this small gadget is for the tasks you want to accomplish today. The full-featured to-do list is for everything you have to do, not just today but all week and all month — work, calls, errands, home stuff, etc. But this Today to-do list gadget is just for stuff you have to do today. I would recommend you put your three Most Important Tasks on this Today list, and not much else. At the end of the day, after you finish those three tasks, you can look at satisfaction as they’re all checked off.
  • Gcal: Add the Google Calendar gadget so you can quickly see what you have on tap for today, and remember appointments easily.
  • Notes: Choose a sticky note gadget for taking quick notes. Everyone needs a scratch pad. Use this whenever something comes up and you need to take a quick note. At the end of the day, process your notes.
  • Bookmarks: I use the Better Bookmarks gadget, but really any bookmarks gadget will do. Basically, you want to put your most frequently used documents and websites — all the stuff you need to do your work. This is your quick-access point to everything you need to be productive.
  • Storage: Have your or other storage service on iGoogle so you can easily access your files.
  • Gmail and Google Reader: I used to have the gadgets for these two programs on my iGoogle page. But they are such huge distractions that I removed them. I recommend not putting them in your workspace.
  • Tabs: If you have different jobs or different aspects to your work life, you can set up different tabs in iGoogle for multiple workspaces. For example, I have one space for my main work, and another for my blog — and this contains all my blog stats, advertising services, quick links to different things I need to do on my blog, my list of upcoming post ideas, etc.
  • Only work stuff: Stay away from putting fun stuff in your virtual workspace. These are major distractions. Keep them out!

Keyword bookmarks:This is where Firefox really pays off — setting up shortcuts for each site you use every day. Bookmark each of your most commonly visited sites and pages in Firefox, and then find them in the Bookmarks menu and right-click on the bookmark and select Properties. Under Properties, in the “keyword” field, type in a short keyword and press OK. From now on, to go to that page, just open a new tab (Ctrl-T), type the keyword, and hit enter. This saves tons of time, because you never have to leave the keyboard. All of you work-related software can be accessible with a few keystrokes.

  • To make your shortcuts available from multiple computers, you’ll want to install Foxmarks so that you can synchronize your bookmarks between computers.
  • A particularly useful keyword shortcut: I have Gmail’s Compose window set up under a shortcut called “compose”, so that I can easily compose an email by typing in “compose”. To do this, click on Compose in Gmail, and then click on the arrow in the upper right corner of the screen to open it in a separate window. Once that’s open, right click anywhere in the blue area of the Compose window and select “Bookmark this page”. Then go to the bookmark and give it a keyword (“compose”) and you’re done!

Kiwi Cloak: If you have trouble staying on task and often get sucked into your favorite time-wasting sites, try installing the Kiwi Cloak Greasemonkey script (you’ll need to install the Greasemonkey extension first). This will prevent you from going to your distracting sites except for a certain time that you set (say, 10 minutes at the top of every hour). That way you can work without distractions for 50 minutes and then reward yourself with 10 minutes of fun. The script allows you to customize the times that you’re blocked, the sites that are blocked, and other settings, and is generally very useful.

Workflow: Start each day by checking your calendar and your overall to-do list, and then setting your three Most Important Tasks for today (adding them to your Today to-do list gadget). To be most productive, I would recommend getting the first MIT done before you check email or read your feeds. Then check your email, emptying out your inbox. Set 2-3 times during the day to process email and read feeds. Get your MITs done, and your day is productive. Open up pages only as you need them, quickly opening them with keyword bookmarks and closing them when you’re done. At the end of the day, check off your Today list, clear out your inbox, and head out for a cold one.


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