How to Set Up your Desk as a Programmer for Maximum Productivity

As a programmer, your desk is the portal to everything you do. Every line of code you write, CSS you minify or updates you push out is done right there. As such, how you set up your desk has huge implications on your productivity and health as a programmer.

I’ve been a frontend developer for over 20 years. Over the years I’ve learned  that there are a few core things that make all the difference when it comes to creating a productive desk, or command center as I'd like to call it.

Laptop vs Desktop

One of the most basic choices you’ll have to make when setting up your desk is choosing between a laptop and a desktop. 

Desktop Pros and Cons:

  • Better specs and more computing power at the same price point
  • Easy to expand, upgrade, and put as many hard drives as you need
  • Doesn’t easily get warm
  • Can assemble one yourself
  • Not portable
  • Sudden power outage may lead to memory loss

Laptop Pros and Cons:

  • More expensive to get the same computing power
  • Portable
  • Doesn’t need constant power supply
  • Tends to have heat buildup
  • Doesn’t need a lot of desk space
  • Not as ergonomic on its own

Whichever device you choose, know that the chances are, you don’t need a really powerful computer as a programmer. Most IDEs are designed to be lightweight and cross platform. A heavy dose of RAM and a SSD however will make multi-tasking a lot smoother I’ve found..

I recently invested in a Dell XPS 15 because I love to game and do video editing on the side. But I could have easily continued my career as a frontend developer on my 10-year-old desktop. 

Device Connectivity

If you’re like me and chose to go the laptop way, you’ll want to have an efficient way to connect all your peripherals. I credit a comfortable external keyboard and mouse as the saviors to my wrist pain and for a lot of the productivity gains as a coder.

The best way to attach a whole bunch of peripherals to your laptop I’ve found? A Thunderbolt 3 / Type-C cable. 

Not every laptop has this type of port. It’s basically a premium connectivity port since only expensive laptops have it. In fact, this is one of the factors I considered when I got my laptop.

So, I have a Type-C/Thunderbolt port on my laptop and one Type-C Dell external monitor which is capable of Daisy chaining.

I plugged the Type-C cable which came with my monitor to my laptop. My headset, mouse, keyboard, and sometimes my smartphone, I connect to the monitor. With a Type-C cable, the monitor also supplies power to my laptop. To add a second monitor, I daisy chain that to my main monitor.

When I return to my home office, I just need to plug in one cable to connect the headset, keyboard, mouse, two monitors, and power supply to my laptop. That’s honestly so cool and convenient.

Display Set Up

The screen is the computer’s window to the soul. Ok not sure what that means, but it sounds wise. The real point is, to do anything on a computer, let alone be productive, you need to optimize the display on your PC or Mac.

Firstly, if you’re just just using the laptop screen, I highly recommend getting some sort of laptop stand to raise the screen up to eye level. This way you’re not constantly looking down and ruining your neck over time.

For maximum productivity though, you’ll want to use a dual monitor set up. It’s true, once you go dual, you don’t go back.

I use two MSI 32” monitors to go with my laptop. I use the second monitor mainly to display debugging and log panels. The laptop screen simply mirrors what’s on the primary monitor.

In terms of physical arrangement, I have my laptop on the far left, with the two external monitors front and center. An external keyboard allows me to type quickly without pivoting my body.

Ergonomic Office Chair

Like most developers, I often find myself in the zone where I’m singularly focused on coding or thinking about the solution to an obstacle. Before I know it, 5 hours have passed.

As a programmer, there is nothing more important than a good ergonomic chair. Nothing. Just like a comfortable bed doesn’t just help you sleep better, a good chair doesn’t just keep “distractions” like back pain at bay, but helps your mind stay focused on the task at hand.

There are plenty of office chairs on the market. Look for one that comes with a lot of adjustments, which is the key to good ergonomics. This means dedicated lumbar support, adjustable headrest, a backrest that reclines (so important for me), and adjustable armrests.

Keyboard and Mouse Setup

A few years ago, carpal tunnel syndrome almost put a stop to my profession as a programmer. This is why investing in a good ergonomic keyboard and mouse is so vital for anyone that spends an inordinate amount of time interacting with the computer.

I used to have a run-of-the-mill Logitech keyboard before switching to the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard. The difference was night and day in terms of comfort. The keys are positioned in a "v" pattern that reduces deviation of my wrists to reach most keys. They are also low force, so I don't have to pound on a key to activate it.

For the mouse, I ditched my old MS mouse for a vertical mouse a few years ago and have not looked back. You hold them kind of like a joystick, with little rotation of the wrist that can cause or aggravate your wrist pain.

Noise Management

Silence is one of the most overlooked productivity hacks in my opinion. If the idle mind is the devil’s playground, a silent mind is where creativity and new ideas blossom.

According to a groundbreaking study, two hours of uninterrupted silence actually causes new cells in the brain to grow. 

The best way to immerse yourself in silence when you’re coding at your desk? A good set of noise canceling headphones.

Personally I own a WH-1000XM3. A lot of times I wear it just to block out outside noise, which really helps when I need to focus.

Desk Shape and Layout

Your desk should be wide and sturdy enough to handle your entire setup with some extra space for your notes, peripherals, and other work stuff. You should also pick the right desk shape to complement your workstyle and workspace.

The most common desk shapes are:

  • U-shaped desks - These take up a lot of room but they have a lot of easy-to-reach usable space.
  • Straight desks - Traditional desks offer versatility in placement but some areas are harder to reach while working.
  • L-shaped and corner desks - These types of desks require less room than U-shaped desks but still give the user ample easy-access space.

Based on Queensland’s Ergonomic Guide, the most ergonomic type of desk is those with a scalloped edge or shallow curve cut out at the center. Not only does it put you closer to your workspace, there’s also better arm support.