A new year may mean a new and improved focus on work. Returning to a disorganized workspace, however, may kill your impetus to get productive. According to a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, “multiple visual stimuli” are in “neural competition” for your limited attention. All that clutter lying around in your space cries out to be dealt with, reducing the cognitive capacity you have left to devote to productive tasks.
If that weren't enough, other aspects of your workspace environment can also affect motivation levels. The good news is that improving your workspace can be easy. Here are some tips to help.
1. GET THE RIGHT LIGHT.
When it comes to workspace lighting, you can’t beat nature. Light regulates substances such as melatonin and serotonin in the brain, affecting wakefulness and mood. As human brains have evolved to respond to natural daylight, we’re not at our best in low-quality electric light. Flood your workspace with as much natural light as possible. Blinds help to reduce glare, but lift them when they aren’t in use for that purpose. Also, make sure you have a flexible mix of different types of artificial lighting. Replace old tungsten bulbs with quality, flicker-free, energy-saving ones that are bright but not too clinically white.
2. TWEAK YOUR TEMPERATURE.
According to an analysis of 24 studies, the optimal temperature for your workspace is 71 degrees Fahrenheit (21.5 degrees Celsius). If the average temperature of your space is way above or below that, it may be time to reassess.
3. ADJUST YOUR MONITOR HEIGHT.
Ideally, the top of your monitor should be at eye-level when you are looking directly forward. Some monitors have adjustable stands, making it easy to raise or lower them. Others have more basic stands, and you’ll need to elevate them on a solid platform (not on top of a wobbly pile of paperbacks!) to get the height right. You can buy a simple monitor riser cheaply enough, but making your own customized one is an easy DIY project if you have the time. Some 1 by 8 inch lumber, a few screws, and some wood glue should do it.
4. PUT SOME COLOR IN YOUR WORKING LIFE.
Scientific studies, like this one published in SAGE, show that color affects mood and motivation. You may have heard people say things like “green makes you calmer” or “red makes you aggressive,” but it’s not as simple as that. We respond to color in complex ways, so we need variety and balance in the colors in our workspace environment, and colors should be appropriate to the space.
Warm yellow may be a good choice for the walls in your office, whereas bright red may not. But having a few blocks of red here and there is better than a sterile white space. Well-chosen, colorful pictures can also improve an office immensely. Try introducing some of your own artwork into your workspace. Many online printing services will now print to canvas, so you can make your psychedelic Photoshop creations look professional. Photograph some bright flowers, blow up huge, print on canvas—easy.
5. GET BAFFLED.
Workspace noise can distract you from productive tasks. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to baffle this kind of noise with sound insulation. Acoustic panels or screens work well but can be expensive. For a DIY version, cover dense mineral wool board with an attractive fabric. Fix these to your walls as panels, or frame them with timber and hinge together to make a screen.
6. WORK WITH PLANTS.
Potted plants add color and interest to a workspace. By putting a little outside environment inside in the form of plants, we perhaps feel less constrained by our artificial surroundings and tend to relax a bit more. Plants can even improve the air quality in your workspace. Some office equipment and lighting emits ozone gas, which can be toxic in high doses. This study from the American Society for Horticultural Science looked at some common indoor plants with rich foliage and found that they reduced levels of ozone in enclosed spaces.
7. RELOCATE THE COFFEE.
We all need regular breaks during our workday. Nevertheless, it’s easy to forget to stop and move about every so often when you’re immersed in a task (especially if you’re in the pleasurable mental state that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi named “flow”.) To force yourself to move, you need an incentive. And what better incentive than a steaming mug of strong coffee? If your kettle or coffeemaker is in your workspace, move it to another room—or at least a decent distance from your desk. That way you’ll get the same coffee buzz plus a short break and some added exercise.
8. QUIZ YOUR LOCATION MOTIVATION.
You may have found that you work better in a different environment—a coffee shop, a diner, an airplane, a hotel lobby—than at your desk. If so, try to figure out what it is about that environment that allows you to concentrate well. Make a list of your impressions of that place (furnishings, lighting, colors, sounds, aromas, etc.), then try to bring some of those elements to your regular workspace. So, for example, if your favorite cafe plays instrumental jazz, compile some playlists that you can listen to at your desk.
9. RAID YOUR KITCHEN TO DE-CLUTTER YOUR DESK.
Of all the clutter in your workspace, it’s the stuff in your near visual field on your desk that causes most “neural competition” for your attention. Some people are almost fetishistic about having the “right” accessories to organize their desk, that it all has to be a coordinated (and probably expensive) set. But you can organize your desktop clutter without any fancy accessories. First, get rid of any stuff you don’t need. Then, raid your kitchen cupboards for useful tubs and storage boxes. I’ll bet you can fit more handy markers and rulers into an old coffee mug than the average exec can fit into his black leather, hand-stitched, laser-engraved fountain-pen stand.
10. DE-CLUTTER YOUR OTHER DESKTOP.
Some clutter is virtual, like the clutter of icons on your computer desktop. They may not be physical in the way that your hole punch is, but they still draw your attention and make it difficult to find the app or document you are looking for. Having too many may even slow down your computer. If you can, clear your computer desktop at the end of each working day.
11. UNWIND WITH CABLE MANAGEMENT.
A tangled cable mess can be a distracting eyesore. Fortunately, it’s easy to get it all organized without unplugging altogether. Braided sleeving is great when you want to bunch cables together for a permanent installation. Even a sturdy cardboard tube will help to hold cables in check. Binder clips are another great way to keep cables organized and flush with the sides or back of your desk. If you have space, fix a basket or rail to the rear of your desk to hold floor-trailing cables up and out of sight.
12. MIX IT UP.
Even if you have a great everyday working space, a little spatial variety helps you to stay productive. Try creating “sub spaces”—different zones within your main workspace. You could have, say, a standing desk in one zone and a seated one in another. You could have a minimalist “contemplation space,” perhaps screened off from your main desk. Or you could have a comfortable lounging space with added benefits. “Embodied cognition” theory hints that our mental states are connected intimately with physical stuff we interact with. So, kicking back for a while on a beanbag in your workspace might let you clear your head enough to come up with a revolutionary squashy, warm, comfortable new idea.