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The Cable Salad Dilemma: What’s the Best Way to Organize Your Desk Cables?

There’s nothing more exciting than getting a new desk, whether it’s at home or in office, and setting it up just how you like it.  

At first, everything is simple and neat – you only have a computer, monitor, keyboard, mouse, and personal items. As time goes on, you add other equipment like a second monitor, mic, headphones, and more.  

Before you know it, you have nursed an unmanageable beast of cables that in Germany they call a ‘Kabelsalat’, which translates to cable salad in English. The ugly, dust-collecting, spiderweb-inviting mass of tangled cables and wires under your desk now stare at you every day as you work saying “Organize me!” 

Jokes aside, it really is important to manage the cables at your desk setup. A question I am often asked is why I spend extra time organizing the cables at the desk setups at our office. Having disorganized/unmanaged cables can affect: 

  • Health The quality of air and dust concentration in the office where you will spend many hours in can directly affect your health. It has been shown that being exposed to large quantities of dust particles for long periods of time has the potential to cause respiratory and cardiovascular health problems. Other side effects are irritation of the eyes, throat, and skin. 
  • Sanitation – A big mess of cables is a perfect nesting ground for spiders, various insects, and in extreme cases even rodents. All of those contribute to an unsanitary environment. 
  • Safety – Loose cables and cables on the floor have the potential to make a person trip on them and get injured. Additionally, it can be extremely unsafe and life-threatening to young children and pets if they pull or chew on the wrong cable. Another safety concern is that the dust can catch fire due to heat emanating from your electronic devices. 

With those things in mind, I take extra care with each setup I do in order for myself and my coworkers to have the best work environment. 

The 3-Layer Approach

Before you begin managing your cables, step back and take a good look at your desk, chair, and power outlets and ask yourself the following questions: 

  • Can I attach anything to the bottom or the back of the desk? 
  • Can I glue or fix items to the top of the desk? 
  • If I have a standing desk, are my cables long enough when the desk is at its maximum height? 
  • Does my monitor stand or monitor arm need clearance behind the desk? 
  • Are there any items that I need to be out of reach of children or pets? 
  • Can I comfortably reach and charge my phone and other devices while doing work? 

The answers to these questions will guide you on how to set up your work environment with my favorite technique – the 3-layer approach.

Desk Cable Organization

  1. Disconnect all the cables from your devices. I suggest labeling your cables as you disconnect them to remind yourself which cable goes where when setting everything back up again. 
  2. Organize your cables into 3 categories: power cables, video cables, and USB cables.  
    • Layer 1: Power CablesThe power cables are the heart of your setup. Generally, they are the thickest and heaviest cables you will have to deal with and the ones that are less common to be unplugged or moved. 
    • Layer 2: Video CablesThose cables are mostly comprised of HDMI, Display port, DVI and VGA cables. In short, anything you connect to a display, monitor or a TV. 
    • Layer 3: USB CablesUSB cables come in all shapes and sizes, and even those that look the same can be significantly different (and the confusing naming scheme that the industry group applied doesn’t help). If you are not familiar with the different USB standards, make sure to label each cable so that you know to which device it plugs into. 
  3. Place your monitors, devices, and peripherals as if they didn’t have any cables attached to them, focusing 100% on what is the best place for them to be in. While the cables are disconnected make sure all the cables are long enough to reach their respective connections.  
  4. Now onto organizing the three layers:  
    • Connect Layer 1 and organize the cables as tightly as possible with a zip tie or velcro.
    • Connect Layer 2 to the appropriate devices and group them together as tightly as possible.
    • Connect Layer 3 and organize those as you did Layer 1 and Layer 2. Since you are very likely to connect and disconnect USB cables soon, you can do it without touching layers 1 and 2, saving time on cable management in the future. 

Tada! You’re all done. Your desk setup should look similar to the examples below.  

Desk Cables Organization Desk Cables Organization

Other Considerations

Because each desk setup / home / office space is unique, there are other things you could consider as you’re thinking about your plan for organizing: 

  • USB or Thunderbolt Docks – If you are using a laptop or a portable device, consider buying a compatible dock for it in order to reduce the number of cables that need to be plugged or unplugged. 
  • Zip ties vs Velcro – While zip ties are cheap and easy to find, they can be quite a hassle to remove when you are doing maintenance or adjustments to your desk. For that reason, I recommend using Velcro rolls and straps. Velcro comes in a large variety of colors that can help you customize your setup. 
  • KVM (Keyboard-Video-Mouse) – If you are using more than one computer, consider investing in a KVM. With a click of a button, your monitor keyboard and mouse will switch to the other computer. However, quality KVMs can be quite expensive, so a solution could be to get a KVM just for the USB component and use your monitor’s menu to switch between the computers. 
  • UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) – Many houses were not designed for a work from home environment, and the same goes for the house’s electric system. Some areas suffer from a dirty electric current and power outages, while some cities mandate very sensitive breakers in bedrooms that are triggered by a simple electric spike from your computer. Conditions such as those can shorten the lifespan of your device and make you lose unsaved work. Therefore, a UPS is a perfect solution for those problems. A UPS can stabilize your electric current both ways and provide temporary power in case of an electric outage, giving you enough time to save your work. 

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