The key to being more productive is literally right in front of you. Look around: is your desk conducive to reaching productivity zen? A lot of research has focused on the benefits and detriments of the stimuli (or lack thereof) in your work environment, and how they’re subsequently affecting your output. Is your workspace helping or hurting you? Here’s what the experts have to say:
What Does Your Workspace Look Like?
Whether it’s an ergonomic chair or a hammock in Bali (you lucky dog, you), it’s impossible to work comfortably if your workspace actively works against you.
Ah, the great standing desk debate: It’s a very polarizing discussion:
- Standing desks make you more productive and less likely to develop crippling health issues.
- Standing desks make you hate working and cause crippling health issues.
Apparently it’s hard to avoid crippling health issues, according to sensationalist pop science.
Science suggests that it’s not sitting or standing time that matters to your health, but rather how much total energy you expend during a day through physical activity. Based on the research, the perfect combination is probably a “sit-stand desk,” where you can sit for a portion of the day and stand for a portion. Try:
- Standing up for closed-ended tasks that required a lot of focus. Standing up creates a sense of urgency to finish the task faster.
- Sitting down for creative or in-depth tasks like writing, researching or solutions-based coding.
Unless you’re a wooden posture doll, you may not get it perfect, but these are good recommended distances to keep in mind. Credit: Lifehacker
Combining any desk setup with physical activity during the day should help you be productive and healthier. Try using a Pomodoro timer app to make sure you take regular breaks, or take calls on your cell phone while taking a walk.
You should also make sure everything else about your setup is ergonomically good to go. Put your monitor high enough to keep your neck straight, set your keyboard position for 90 degree elbows, and your desk height for feet flat on the floor. At ease!
“I swear I know exactly where everything is.” Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Is the old saying, “cluttered desk, cluttered mind” actually true?
In an experiment published in Psychological Science, researchers asked participants to fill out questionnaires in clean offices and messy offices. A clean space influenced people to be more focused, but also conform more to expectations and convention. By contrast, those messy “nutty professor” types of desktops proved to fuel more creativity and insightfulness.
Of course, messy creativity does not equal productivity, so it really comes back to what gets you doing your best work in the least amount of time. Everything should have its place, even if that place is just “the right-most stack.” A desk system that matches your personal organization style saves both time and headache.
How Does Your Work Area Feel?
If you’re physically uncomfortable or in a bad mood, the most ergonomic sit-stand workspace in the world won’t do your work for you. Form and function are all well and good, but how you feel matters too.
Color sets the tone for our mood in powerful ways. All colors can be productive, depending on what kind of boost you need. According to a study by the University of Texas:
- Red accelerates the heart rate, giving you a jolt of energy. Your eye is instantly drawn to red, and it promotes physical activity and emotion.
- Orange is a social color, encouraging interaction. It works well in meeting rooms or other social spaces, though it might not be the most productivity-inducing shade.
- Yellow stimulates creativity and optimism. If you’re a designer or creative professional, this could be your workspace accent color.
- Green behaves almost as a neutral for the human brain. It is calming, and also causes zero eye strain over long periods of time.
- Blue is the most universally productive color. Calming and stable, it helps most people focus on intensive tasks.
- Purple stimulates problem solving, despite not being a very popular color in workspace decor.
- Rainbows make us happy, creative, energetic, productive unicorns. (Okay, fine, that last one is not backed up by science.)
Accent pieces and color walls can affect your productivity in the work environment.
You can also extend this to your digital life. Color-coding for mental associations (think: red for high priority items) is a well-known calendar and to-do list tactic. Project management app tools like Trello’s colorful labels and backgrounds allow you to create color associations with your work that could help you engage with tasks differently based on which ones you choose.
Keeping offices cool wastes money two ways: air conditioning costs and lost productivity. Studies going all the way back to the 1940s found too-cold workers made far more errors and felt “cooler” and less generous in social situations, even with differences of only a few degrees. One study estimated that errors could be as high as 44% in cold offices!
Temperature standards in many office buildings trace back to Danish scientist Povl Ole Fanger, who in the 1960s set the “ideal” office temperature at 70 degrees Fahrenheit, perfectly suited for suit-wearing men. Newsflash: times have changed.
The majority of people in a study in Nature Climate Change preferred the thermostats at around 75 degrees Fahrenheit. If you’re lucky enough to work remote or have your own office with an independent thermostat, experiment with which temperature works for you.
There’s no replacement for true natural light, but just getting out from under harsh fluorescents can yield immediate productivity boosts. Fluorescent lighting saps your energy and makes you less productive, without even mentioning the environmental issues.
If natural light isn’t in the cards for you right now, LED light can be a good substitute for natural light.
Exposure to artificial light and the “blue” light of our devices messes up this natural rhythm and leaves you drowsy and lethargic all day. Credit: Alex Fergus
Working in the light from a window is the best possible lighting situation, of course, with a strong LED task lamp for reading and brightening your desk area. Without a window, an LED lamp turned on in the morning and switched off in the afternoon can mimic natural light patterns for maximum productivity and mood boost.
How Does Your Workspace Sound?
Sounds are powerful productivity cues that can pull us out of deep tasks and promote dreaded context switching. Whether you prefer as much silence as possible or only specific kinds of noise, you need to understand how auditory stimuli makes you better or worse at your job.
Gregory Ciotti at HelpScout thoroughly covered the different styles of music that work best for immersive tasks, including:
- Familiar music, so your brain doesn’t look ahead for what’s next.
- Classical music, especially Baroque-period pieces for productivity boosts and no lyrics.
- Electronica and its repetitive sounds as a way to increase focus.
- Video game soundtracks, which are created to be atmospheric, but not distracting.
- Quiet music of any kind can provide background noise without disrupting focus.
Studies have shown classical music, especially of the Baroque period, to be the clear winner in raising overall productivity. Experiment with different types of music during different tasks (or no music at all) to see what works best for you.
Background noise: some hate it, some crave it. A paper from the Journal of Consumer Research found 70 dB to be the perfect level of background noise for maximum creativity and innovation boost. At 85 dB, though, the effect reversed. Ambient noise at that volume harmed creativity to the same degree.
So, if you can find a coffee shop, co-working space, or area of your office with your perfect level of ambient noise, it could be a good spot for creative work before moving somewhere else to hammer those creative ideas into shape.
Think about only spending a portion of your day in places with ambient noise you can’t control, however, whether that means leaving the coffee shop or slipping on headphones for part of the day.
Why We Chase Productivity
At its most basic, productivity is simply output divided by time. It’s a simple metric designed to standardize worker contributions as a management tool.
But productivity can also be a personal empowerment tool for people looking to shed the idea of the 40-hour work-week as a measure of value. Instead, if you seek ways to do your best work as efficiently as you can, measuring productivity can leave you more time to do other things that matter.
Did any of these environmental productivity tips strike a chord for you? Try keeping a Trello board to save ideas for improving your work environment, and let us know in the comments if we missed anything!