Managing Limited Desktop Space and Multiple Projects




I have many varied interests,  and most  require some amount of free work space on my desk.  I do not always finish what I've started in one sitting, or one day, or even one week.  In the mean time, the space occupied by whatever current project often needs to be cleared for something else.   It got to be a drag to have relocate numerous tools, wires,  bits of this and that, especially if I had something in a precarious stage of assembly.    I can't afford to have a different desk for every project, so I've settled on the next best thing: different self-contained work areas.  It's a crazy simple but super effective solution.

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Step 1: The Limited Work Area

This is my desktop on a god day.   I have a industrial banquet table for my desk, and it holds  assorted hardware, such as a 24" monitor, a printer, and some audio  equipment.   There's a area I clear that's generally sufficient for assembly activity, such as making popup books or hacking on an Arduino.

I've placed two rulers in the picture to give a sense of size.

Step 2: Filling the Space

When  I have  a project, rather than just working directly on the desktop, I use a serving tray instead.  Not everything always fits, but the main goal is to use it to hold items that would be awkward to otherwise move then later recreate.

In this picture I'm playing around with  an Arduino Lilypad.  If i need this space for something else I can easily pick up the tray without everything on it and place it elsewhere within having to dismantle stuff.

Step 3: Reusing the Space

If I decide to change projects and work, say, on a popup book, I just move the one tray and bring over another, with the project still intact.

Note that when moving and storing a tray I often need to do some stacking, which I'l unstack when actually using the tray contents.  But I do manage to avoid having to individually relocate dozens of pieces.

Step 4: Where Projects Sleep

I have more free shelf space than free desk space, so the Neurogami laboratory has assorted trays shelved here and there.

Step 5: Materials

I purchased a number of basic plastic trays of assorted colors at Target,  for about USD $1 each.   They work pretty well, though there is some slight bowing in the middle of the tray.

If you find that you need a more solid flat surface consider getting metal cookie baking  trays.   They're likely going to be more expensive than plastic trays, but still relatively cheap (about  USD  $6  each).  If you are reluctant to do your work on a metal surface you can cover it with contact paper.

You need to be mindful of the tray depth, and the size of the tray handles.  In my initial tray hunt I came across some nice solid plastic trays that would have worked great but the side walls were too high.  High tray walls can get in the way of your hands, like working inside of a box.  Wide tray handles are not a problem per se, but they increase the amount of free desk and shelf space you need for the tray, and you are better off finding longer trays with short handles to maximize your work area.

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    29 Discussions


    7 years ago on Introduction

    With many projects going the tray idea is Great, Being a "piler" this will
    help keep small stuff. Banquet tables are great also!

    pink wire.jpg
    1 reply

    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    Banquet tables are *solid*. You could probably dance on one. They're also relatively cheap.

    Better the spend furniture money on a better chair then a fancy desk.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    This is a great storage idea thanks so much for sharing. I'm setting up a space in the corner of my workshop single garage for doing my electronics projects and have been wondering how to accommodate multiple unfinished projects in the one space. Using your idea I'm making some 15"x20" trays using left over thin ply I have and gluing 1/4" edges round them to stop bits rolling off.

    Thanks to others also for contributing too with the tray storage ideas. I'm building a rack out of an old computer desk frame I have, which will roll under the workbench, to store the trays in.

    saitaiable child

    7 years ago on Step 4

    I want to design a shelf just for project storage. I also want trays without rims, the rims would hurt my arms. Maybe little slices of foam padding as a short rim. The shelves would resemble a small flat file. Thanks for getting me thinking.

    1 reply

    "I also want trays without rims, the rims would hurt my arms. Maybe little slices of foam padding as a short rim."

    Rims are tricky. I looked at a number of trays that were quite solid and maybe a little larger than the typical cookie tray, but the walls were always just too high making it awkward to reach in and around. On the other hand, having at least some sort of rim keeps things from rolling or sliding off, especially when moving trays around.

    A tray with foldable sides would be ideal.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Unfortunately I may be forced from my small rural property into a small apartment. With only myself, I don't have to make comprise with anyone. I don't care it looks like I'm living in the middle of a workshop. Visitors that matter will adjust.


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    "The Cult of Done Manifesto" by Bre Pettis and Kio Stark may help:

    My summary: Don't waste your time chasing perfection - you may never catch it! Everything is a draft - you can always do it again better next time if that becomes necessary!


    7 years ago on Introduction

    One more thing...I find that if I cant complete the project, I put it aside and then start another. And when I cant complete that, I start another, and after a year of so goes by, I look back at all the projects, get a little frustrated....and just start another. Its very soothing...


    7 years ago on Step 5

    I suppose a first project for me would build a bakers like rack on wheels to set trays and projects aside. Really got me thinking, I too, am a spreader..


    7 years ago on Step 3

    I make jewelry, and like you I don't always complete 1 piece without starting another. You have to do it when the idea strikes you. I use the same serving trays that you do, that way I don't have to put all the beads and findings away, and can go back to that particular piece when I feel like it.
    I do have to remove my tools, as I don't have several sets, but that's the easy part. I guess great minds think alike.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Great idea using trays! really simple and effective. I also find boxes with many small draws really useful for keeping small hardware and electronic components in.

    2 replies

    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    Do you know were I could buy stuff like that? It would be helpfull :) But I cant seem to find any anywere


    7 years ago on Introduction

    When I am fixing stuff.... or taking apart with th intention of putting it back together, to store the screw I take a magnet and throw the screws at it, which keeps them all in one place.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    We must be related :-) I bought about 100 fiberglass army cafeteria trays and have made vertical racks to hold them and allow variable spacing between. Bassically I got home depot wire shelving and weld sections to make a V or U channel of them. Then stand them up verticaly. The trays can slip into the wire 'slots' as nneded
    This way I can store and 'freeze' a current project until I have time to resume. Often sadly I'm an interrupted process with no stored return address ;-). -Lee Studley

    2 replies

    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    I joking say to colleges that, "I work and think in Systems of Piles". Over time I notice they often end up stealing/borrowing/incorporating my trays


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    I organize things by 'piling method' also.

    My wife files things. My method drives her crazy, but I can find what I want without a problem.

    It's perspective; mine is vertical filing, her's is horizontal.

    Glad to hear of others in my organizing world.