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Workspace Design

Setting the Scene for a Productive Day

Your desk setup and surrounding environment play a huge role in your ability to focus and produce great work. A look at how to "script" your space for creative success.

Once you’ve sunk into the warm embrace of your favorite chair after a long day, it can feel excruciatingly difficult to summon up the motivation to go out and exercise, grocery shop, or take in culture. It just seems like far too much hassle and effort to take action. So you stay put.

Yet, when you go directly from your workspace to the gym, the grocery store, or an art gallery, completing the corresponding activities becomes next to effortless. It’s hard not to do what you “want” to do when you’re in the right environment.In the same way, the places where you do — or attempt to do — creative projects can naturally draw you into a certain state. If you’ve developed a habit of feverishly responding to every email and/or social media message as soon as you sit down at your desk facing your computer, it’s hard to engage in any kind of higher-level strategic thinking from that position. Your brain has learned that when your body sits in that spot, you’re in “tactical” mode.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you may have an armchair tucked into a bay window overlooking a garden. Since that’s the place where you journal, sitting down in that chair triggers a reflective mode. With minimal conscious effort on your part, you exhale, lose track of your surroundings, and begin to explore all sorts of ideas and possibilities.

In both instances, you didn’t command your mind to function in a certain way; your subconscious simply responded to the patterns of behavior associated with placing yourself in a certain location.

When you leverage the fact that you have emotional and mental responses to specific places, you can dramatically increase your productivity. Each person’s optimal environment will look a bit different, but I’ve found that you need to consider these four elements as you set up your backdrop for success:

1. The Right Reminders.

Ideally, you can have different locations for each type of activity such as answering email while you’re on the train, doing your core responsibilities when you sit down at your desk, and strategic planning when you stop into the coffeeshop. These patterns of behavior matched with consistent location changes will prompt you to complete the specified activity with minimal mental effort.

But if you must complete all of your daily activities within a few square feet of space, you can trigger your mind to change activities with other small physical cues such as: standing up instead of perching on your chair at your elevated desk; moving your mouse from one side of the keyboard to the other; or sliding your chair over to a different portion of your work surface. You can choose how you associate places with activities, but to achieve the full benefit, aim for a consistent link between place and behavior.

When you leverage the fact that you have emotional and mental responses to specific places, you can dramatically increase your productivity.

2. The Right Tools.

Preferably, you can have all of the tools you need to complete a particular type of work laid out in a beautiful, organized fashion — and within arm’s reach. This makes you more efficient and reduces your resistance to doing a certain task because it requires getting up to fetch something. If you can’t leave everything out or you have a mobile working situation, carry a bag stocked with all of your essential tools, materials, electronics, and papers. Put it together once, and then as soon as you use up any supply, immediately replace it. This allows you to quickly and efficiently transition to a new location without feeling frustrated that you forgot a critical item.

3. The Right Distractions.

Some people experience creative nirvana in monastic-like silence while others hit the flow state to the pounding beat of their favorite song. Neither pattern of activity is right or wrong. The essential point is that you’re keenly aware of what types of distractions — or lack of distractions — make doing what you want to do easier. You can take notice of how you respond to these sorts of environmental factors and stage your day accordingly:

  • How do I function when I’m connected or disconnected to the Internet?
  • Does having certain devices turned on affect my mental state?
  • What kind of activities do I do best when I’m around people?
  • How does my mind respond when I’m completely alone?
  • Can background music or a movie help me focus?
  • Do days at home lead to higher or lower productivity?

4. The Right Surroundings.

For your most important creative work, having an environment that you relish spending time in makes starting on hard mental work much easier. If you have the ability to design your workspace, consider the type of lighting, colors, and materials that make you feel good about moving forward on creative projects. If a custom workspace isn’t feasible, try to find a spot that best suits your ideal — perhaps an atrium area in your building or a conference room with a great view. Or you can make small adaptations to your workspace such as:

  • Bringing in a small lamp with a soft white light bulb for a warmer glow
  • Keeping fresh flowers or plants in your area
  • Putting up some favorite pieces of art or inspiring quotes
  • Tacking up fabric on the wall
  • Requesting additional drawers so that your surface looks less cluttered

By setting the backdrop for your day, you can reduce friction in the flow of your life and create better work in less time.

Where Do You Stand?

Have you found that you can make your work easier by positioning yourself in a certain location?What changes to your physical environment have lead to the greatest creative breakthroughs?

Elizabeth Grace Saunders

Elizabeth Grace Saunders is the founder of Real Life E Time Coaching & Training and author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment: How to Achieve More Success With Less Stress and How to Invest Your Time Like Money. Find out how you can accomplish more with peace and confidence at

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