Optimizing Workspace For Productivity, Focus, & Creativity

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It will take about 6 minutes to settle into work and focus: unless you are very stressed or excited about something, don’t expect to be immediately focused the moment you sit/stand to work

As you optimize the workspace, the latency period (the time it takes to get focused) will decrease

In the first part of your day (0-9 hours after waking), bright lights make for maximum alertness – use bright overhead lights and blue light or ring light in front of you

Our cognition follows our visual environment: for detailed analytic work (ideally in Phase I 0-9 hours after waking), work in a lower ceiling environment or put in a hoodie or hat to restrict visual field; for Phase II (9-16 hours after waking creative work), work in high ceiling room or outdoors

To be alert and maintain an optimal level of alertness, keep the screen or book at nose level or slightly higher up – ideally while standing or seated

For every 45 minutes you are focused on something, take a walk or relax your eyes and dilate your gaze for 5 minutes to avoid fatigue

Depending on the day, background noise can be a stimulant or hindrance to focus – but generally, the incessant humming of air conditioners or heaters can increase mental fatigue and decrease cognitive performance

Tip to manage office interruptions: if someone enters your office or workspace, acknowledge their presence but don’t shift your body or reorient yourself

We weren’t designed to sit all day, but we shouldn’t stand all day either – a combination of about 50/50 is best

Active workstations (e.g., cycle or treadmill) can improve attention and cognition for some tasks

Reminder About Using Phases Of The Day For Productivity

To build new habits & behaviors, leverage your body’s natural brain and body rhythms

Phases of the day will invoke a shift in mood and mindset that are more conducive to building and keeping habits

Phase 1: 0-8 hours after waking up

This phase comes with a more alert state which can be heightened by sunlight viewing, caffeine delaying, fasting, etc.

Norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine are elevated during this phase

Healthy cortisol is also elevated in the brain and bloodstream

This is when you want to take on new habits and behaviors that are challenging for you – you are naturally more readily able to engage in activities with a high degree of limbic friction

Phase 2: 9-15 hours after waking up

Levels of dopamine, epinephrine, and cortisol start to come down

Serotonin starts to rise and lends itself to a relaxed state of being – can be enhanced with a warm bath, yoga nidra, ashwagandha

Taper the amount of bright light (unless it’s sunlight) & start dimming house lights a bit

This is when you want to taper stress level and take on habits and things you are already doing that don’t require a lot of override of limbic friction – e.g., journaling, music

Phase 3: 16-24 hours after waking up

Keep environment very dark or dim & room temperature low

The body needs to drop in temperature to fall asleep & stay asleep

If you wake up in the middle of the night, use as little light as possible

Deep sleep is critical to wiring neural circuits required for building habits

Workspace Lighting

Fundamental variable of workspace optimization:

Vision and light are important components to set the brain in a high state of alertness

Being in a brightly lit environment can lend itself to increased productivity throughout the day, not just in the morning

Work in a space with as much overhead light as is safely possible

Lighting tip: during the first 0-9 hours of your day, work in a space with as much overhead light as possible to facilitate the release of dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, and optimal amounts of cortisol

A ring light or light pad placed in front of you will also increase alertness and stimulate photons

Placing your desk near a window – and opening a window if possible – will stimulate eyes and send “wake up” signal during the first 7-8 hours of the day

Around 9-16 hours after waking, start dimming environment: reduce blue light exposure, turn off overhead lights and turn on lamps or other lighting options in the workspace

Screen brightness: people have different retinal sensitivity, but you never want it to be painful to look as your screen

Around 17-24 hours after waking (shift workers or students): Option 1) limit bright light to just enough that allows you to complete work to keep sleep and metabolism in the best shape possible; Option 2) if you want/need to be very alert, make the environment as bright as possible

It’s most ideal to stay awake during the day and sleep at night

All-nighter tip: drink a lot of water and don’t let yourself go to the bathroom

To nerd out on lighting, check out the app Light Meter

Visual Focus

Where you physically place a screen or book in your workspace plays an important role in alertness

There’s a relationship between where we look and the level of focus

When looking down toward the ground, neurons related to calm and sleepiness are activated

Ideally, work while standing or seated, not laying in bed or on the couch

Standing and sitting up straight while looking at a screen or book that is elevated will generate maximal levels of alertness

You will create maximum alertness, focus, and cognition when you bring your eyes to a narrow point in space – keep visual focus narrow, around the side of the head or right outside eyes

Tip: put on a hoodie or wear a hat to slightly restrict the visual window

Cathedral effect: thinking becomes smaller and more constricted in tighter visual fields, and vice versa

High ceilings versus low ceilings: high ceilings elicit abstract thoughts and creativity whereas low ceilings promote detailed and concrete work

To learn more, check out: The Influence of Ceiling Height: The Effect of Priming on the Type of Processing That People Use by Levy & Zhu  

Tip: for Phase II (9-16 hours after waking creative work), work in a high ceiling room or outdoors; for detailed analytic work (ideally in Phase I 0-9 hours after waking), work in a lower ceiling environment or put in hoodie or hat to restrict the visual field

Auditory Environment

Listening to particular sounds and in particular, conditions can improve cognition

Sometimes we want more background noise, sometimes we want less: our auditory tolerance can change from one day to the next and even fluctuate within the same day

Background noise to avoid: the incessant humming of air conditioners or heaters can increase mental fatigue and decrease cognitive performance

To read more: Psychophysiological Responses to Potentially Annoying Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning Noise During Mentally Demanding Work by Love, Sung & Francis

Even if we’re not registering background noise, our auditory system is processing

Working with white, pink, or brown noise can help in spurts of about 45 min but not for hours on end – you’re better off walking or getting sunlight for a few minutes

Binaural beats place the brain into a state that is better for learning

Binaural beats: playing one sound in one ear and a different sound in the other ear

Low-frequency waves put the brain into a relaxed state versus high-frequency soundwaves which put the brain into more alert states

Binaural beats (around 40 Hz) have been shown to increase cognition, relaxation, creativity, pain reduction, anxiety reduction

Interruptions & Distractions In Workspace

Distractions and things that take away from tasks aren’t just bad in the moment, it takes time to get brain waves back into attention and focus

Tip: if someone enters your office or workspace, acknowledge their presence but don’t shift your body or reorient yourself

Managing phone distractions: turn off the phone, put the phone on airplane mode, put the phone in a drawer or away from eyesight

Freedom is an app that allows you to lock yourself out of the internet to decrease distraction

Is It Better To Sit Or Stand?

We weren’t designed to sit all day – but we also weren’t designed to stand all-day

Just sitting for 5-8+ hours a day is terrible for us and can impact sleep, neck pain, cardiovascular system, muscular pressure  

A combination of sitting and standing throughout the day is best

Use boxes or books if you don’t have access to an adjustable standing desk

People who decrease sitting time show improvements to shoulder and neck pain, vitality, improvement in cognitive conditioning, and embracing new tasks

Tip: spend half of your time standing, half of your time sitting

Active Workstations

There don’t seem to be any differences in cognitive tasks between cycling versus walking workstations

Active workstations are better for some tasks, worse for others: there appear to be improvements in attention and cognition when using active workstations versus seated – however – verbal memory scores were worse during active workstations

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