How-To Geek

Optimize Your Computer Screen Real Estate

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You look at your computer screen everyday. By habit, you use the space in ways that get the job done. But you can do an even better job if you optimize your workspace.

In order to optimize your workspace, you need to do at least three things:

    1. Familiarize yourself with the different components of your desktop and how to customize them
    2. Observe what kinds of tasks you do regularly, and figure out how to do them most efficiently — with regards to your computer screen set-up
    3. Try out different set-ups until you find what works best for you

We’ll briefly cover the different components of your workspace and how to customize them. Then we’ll cover a few examples of common tasks and their specific workspace constraints. We’ll conclude with suggestions on how to find what works best for you.

Components of Your Computer Screen

The Desktop

Your desktop is the most obvious workspace, because it’s where you pull up windows to actually get stuff done. But besides all the window use, your desktop itself is handy workspace. It’s basically a blank canvas where you can temporarily dump or store files and shortcuts, as well as create new folders for quick use.

Think of the desktop as your computer’s short-term memory. You can create an easy snapshot of what you’re working on simply by laying the files and folders out on your desktop. The next time you log on, all your work is still intact via the desktop structure you have in place.

The Start Menu

The start menu is located on the far left (or top, depending on the orientation) of the taskbar. It’s like the master-control for all your programs and settings. It pins programs to the list in the left-hand column based on how often you use them. You can add a program to that visible list by right-clicking on its icon through the menu and selecting “Pin to Start Menu.” (The same goes for unpinning it.) To reorder how items are pinned, simply drag and drop within the list.

The Taskbar

The taskbar by default sits along the bottom of your screen. It contains the start menu (on the far left or top, depending on the orientation), the quick launch toolbar (if you have it set to be visible), the middle space where opened documents and programs can be seen, and the notification area on the far right (or bottom), which lets you know how certain systems are running (such as your internet connection).

We’ll cover customizations of taskbar component in next sections, but you can customize the taskbar itself by changing the: color, size, and composition, the order of icons displayed in the middle section, and whether or not they display at all (through the auto-hide feature in Windows Vista).

The Quick Launch Toolbar

When the quick launch toolbar is activated, it shows up on the taskbar — just to the right of the start menu button. It’s a clever tool because it acts as your personalized start menu — without some of the permanent items on your normal start menu.

Another benefit of the quick launch toolbar is that you can see some of the icons on the taskbar itself. With the start menu, you only see the classic Windows button that brings up the menu.

Other Toolbars on the Taskbar

You can also add extra toolbars to the taskbar. They won’t have the nifty icon display like the quick launch toolbar, but they can make it easier to access common programs or files. To add a custom toolbar, right click on a blank area of the toolbar, select Toolbars, then select New Toolbar… and select the folder that you would like to convert into a toolbar.

Here’s an example where an extra toolbar is really effective. If you’re working on a collection of documents that you’re trying to finish by the end of the month, first house them in the same folder. Let’s name the folder “Documents in Regular Use.”

Then create a toolbar for that folder. And with a simple click directly on your taskbar, you can easily access the documents in the folder “Documents in Regular Use.”

If you want to show items from within that folder on the taskbar itself, click the outer border of the folder icon area and pull out. You can see below that it has a different look and functionality.

The Sidebar (Vista)/ Desktop Gadgets (Windows 7)

You can also use a sidebar with some basic tools that Windows provides, such as the calendar, clock, or even sticky-notes. You can keep them each within the sidebar or move them out on the desktop where you want them. Below they are shown pulled out of the designated sidebar area and lined up on a top row.

There are many more icons you can download and add from: Control Panel > Appearance and Personalization > Windows Sidebar Properties. And in Windows 7, you have the option of removing the sidebar altogether (in Windows 7 and Vista.

Web Browser Toolbars

Now let’s move from features of your desktop set-up to features from within your web browser.

Once you pull up your browser, you basically open up a new “desktop” within your original desktop. This browser likely comes with toolbars, which are similar to the taskbar on your actual desktop.

Within Firefox, the upper-most toolbar is the menu bar, with common commands such as File, Edit, and Help. The next row — to the right of the address bar — is the navigation toolbar. It’s typical to put your homepage icon there, as well as the reload and cancel buttons. On the bottom row, right above your web page tabs, is the bookmarks toolbar, which displays icons for your most-accessed sites.

Each of these three browser toolbars (not to mention additional ones you can download from sites like Yahoo and Google) can be customized. You can add or remove icons by clicking View in the menu bar, then Toolbars, and selecting Customize. You can hide toolbars by clicking on View in the menu bar and unchecking the desired toolbars. And you can reorder icons within the navigation and bookmarks toolbars simply by dragging and dropping.

Navigation Within Your Homepage

And then if you have a customized homepage, you can also set up navigation from within. If you have a Google homepage for instance, you can set up a gadget to act as a feed reader or include links to important sites — it basically acts as another toolbar. And this doesn’t even include the toolbar links that the Google homepage already has built-in (such as those leading to Gmail and Docs)!

Taking Inventory of Your Computer Screen Real Estate

As you can see, there is a lot of space to work with on your computer screen. Especially when you’re using the internet and opening up “desktops within desktops.” You probably don’t need to use all of the space available to you, and it’s obvious how the different components often overlap with one another in terms of function. In fact, if you check out how you’re managing your workspace right now, you might find more redundancies than you’d like to admit.

Your computer screen real estate is the collection of areas on your workspace that you actively use to get your work done. Or that you should actively use to get your work done even better.

Examples of Task-Specific Constraints

To figure out what your computer screen real estate is, you need to first know what type of work you’re trying to get done. Because different tasks require different set-ups. So track what kinds of tasks you regularly do on your computer, and what set-up makes that as easy as possible. Here are some examples:

  • If you work with code all day long, you probably want to keep your windows wide. It makes sense to keep the taskbar on the bottom because your prime real estate is reading code across the screen at eye-level. It’s also a good idea to disable the sidebar (unless you’re really using one of the features, like the sticky notes), because the last thing you want to deal with is visual clutter.
  • If you write blog posts all day long, you probably want to have a clean workspace. And easy access to your important applications that enhance blogging, feed reading, web research, social media, and webmastering. It makes sense to keep your actual desktop as empty as possible so that you can better work directly on it for posts-in-progress. It might also make sense to set up dynamic custom toolbars on the taskbar (for posts on a deadline). As well as a comprehensive quick launch toolbar for webmaster-related applications such as your FTP program. And toolbars within your web browser — for all your internet-based applications — to make research and social media a breeze.
  • If you do graphic design all day long, you probably want to keep your workspace visually appealing — whether or not it’s tidy or clean. Opt for using the sidebar, perhaps with the slideshow icon included (since it’s visually stimulating). It’s helpful to place your special design programs in the quick launch toolbar that’s expanded enough so most if not all of the icons are visible.

Can you start to see how each of these professions demands a slightly different set-up for your computer screen? The real estate differs in each example:

  • The programmer needs a large workspace that pushes everything else out and around.
  • The blogger needs a clean workspace and multiple ways to launch web application.
  • The artist needs visual cues rather than lists and columns, as well as overall visual stimulation.

How about you? Based on your daily tasks, what do you need? What parts of your computer screen are considered prime real estate? And how can you maximize its use?

Find What Works Best for You

Trial and error is the best way to find your ideal set-up. Move things around if you’re not sure and try it out for a few days. Keep switching until something sticks. And keep in mind that understanding what makes a certain set-up difficult can help you understand what makes one helpful. It’s okay to have a redundant set-up at first. And maybe that’s actually what works best for you.

The key is to be able to focus on your work with minimal distractions and minimal time figuring out where everything is. So figure out where your prime real estate is located, and make the best of it.

Melissa Karnaze is an experimental psychology masters student. She's interested in how we can use technology with greater mindfulness, writes about emotional productivity at Mindful Construct, and loves how the web is changing the world.

  • Published 08/23/10

Comments (12)

  1. Todd

    Id like to add that I simply open up a folder so it fills the screen, put everything formerly on the desktop in my folder but in certain locations, and then close up the folder. The folder itself, which is kept on the desktop, is labelled Hidden Desktop and it hides everything that I can put in there. When the folder is closed, the desktop is largely clear. That folder and any remaining icons I place in a single column on the right side of the screen. There’s also an alias there in the column to my doc, Errands. I do this on both my iMac and my Win7 laptop. My desktop widgets on my laptop won’t go into a folder, they insist on staying on the laptop, I line them up along the right side of the screen in single file.

    I prefer most of my screen to be largely solid black with minimal clutter or distractions, because that’s how I prefer my workspace. But I still like a dash of color somewhere, and blue is my favorite color. So for example I now have wallpaper that shows a blue crescent, it’s the Earth as seen from the dark side, it’s a photo of Earth by the recent Japanese satellite as it was returning to Earth earlier this year (taken May 21, 2010). I don’t know if the blue sliver represents the crack of dawn or last light before the fall of night. There are no stars. So, just a dash of blue against solid black. That’s my iMac wallpaper, haven’t done anything yet for laptop wallpaper.

    The photo I used for my iMac wallpaper comes from the following webpage

  2. Varun

    Hey Please Tell Me How To Get That Wallpaper, The Very First One. It’s Really Cool.

  3. Melissa Karnaze

    @Todd, thanks for sharing, sounds like a great way to wok offline!

    @Varun, it’s a Windows download, under Desktop backgrounds (wallpapers) >> Places and landscapes:

    Direct link:


  4. Ron Davison

    why not have a 3D desktop with toolbars and icons placed on the outside scrolling around clockwise or counterclockwise like a 3D framed picture and be able to scroll in or out to “hide” them from viewable area?
    when needed just scroll out to see them as needed. Most used on the inside, least to the outside.

  5. DMac the Destroyer

    As a programmer and a user of a laptop as my only computer, the biggest goal of mine is to avoid the trackpad. To that end, I have no icons or gadgets or widgets or whatever on my desktop, just the background image. I hide all of the icons in the notification area of the taskbar on the right except for ones that tell me my battery life and cpu/memory usage or other useful type stuff. The result is lots of real estate on the taskbar to see what’s running, and a totally uncluttered desktop just dying to GTD.

    It’s amazing how well one can get around with so few keystrokes in Vista/7. I use Vimium for Chrome to navigate with the keyboard, AutoHotKey scripts for quickly launching commonly used programs and the Vista start menu search box for running anything else.

  6. Paul T Blades

    I am fairly new to the Geek family, but it’s the most fabulous resource on earth! I have forwarded it to all my friends. I am leaving this comment at this subject line because it has to do with desktop real estate. The so-called “Auto Hide” function in Windows in general simply “Stinks on Ice!” My Task Bar only Auto Hides OCCASIONALLY, BUT DOING SO IS THE EXCEPTION, NOT THE RULE. Almost always I have to use the bi-directional arrow to lower my two tier Task Bar down to one tier, where it will go no further. This is the one Windows feature I love the most (I have Windows 7), and it doesn’t work. You can’t imagine how frustrating this is, especially when you are online for example filling out a form. The Task Bar hides the submit button at the bottom of the page because the Bar won’t hide all the way, and you have to minimize your web page just to be able to click on the submit button! What’s up with this? Am I the only one PO’d by this? Does anyone know of a way to force the Task Bar to completely hide EVERY TIME?

  7. sirjackum....ultimate ruler of the universe.

    Hey Paul, You can make your taskbar permanently one tiered by right-clicking on the start button, than clicking properties, than click the taskbar tab, than check use small icons. This will make your taskbar the same size as in XP.

  8. JBS

    @ Ron Davison
    “why not have a 3D desktop with toolbars and icons placed on the outside scrolling around clockwise or counterclockwise like a 3D framed picture and be able to scroll in or out to “hide” them from viewable area?
    when needed just scroll out to see them as needed. Most used on the inside, least to the outside.”

    Because then you would be using a good o/s like Linux which already has these features :)

  9. Mike

    This article is a good start, but it would have been nice to include some links to tools that can be used as well. Tools like the classic start menu tool or some of the stardock tools.

  10. Nob Ody

    You should play with ZenKEY (freeware), in particular with its Infinite Desktop and you should try Firefox’s Hide Menubar addon which shows it only when you want (pressing Alt), and Hide Caption Titlebar to do that.

  11. Chuck

    Is there a way to set up the icons on my desktop, so that they look like they are on a rolodex moving across the screen?

  12. Ricardo

    HI please tell me how to get that WALLPAPER thats a nice

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