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Optimizing Workspace For Productivity, Focus, & Creativity

Key Takeaways

  • 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 an