How to Get Maximum Focus and Creativity with Environmental Design

Attention to environmental cues can give you a big boost in productivity — even if you’re a digital nomad.

I was well prepared to write another article. I had my laptop with me. I had my phone switched off. I had the right mindset.

Everything seemed right, but I just couldn’t fish the words out of my brain.

I thought through everything I usually do to feel prepared to write. And I realized that part of my problem was that I was writing in my bedroom, sitting on my bed.

To a lot of people, that seems insignificant. But if you’ve read some of my previous pieces, you know how much stress I lay on restricting my bed to sleeping. I’d stopped working from bed because I had a lot of trouble falling asleep. Now I’d slipped up and was seeing the problem from the other side: I had trouble working from bed because that’s where I was now used to sleeping.

Your work environment matters much more than you might think. I was surprised to learn how much seemingly minor changes in my environment could have a big impact.

I’m very strict about where I do what now. In this article, I’ll tell you about the changes I made and how you can make them, too.

The results? I have a habit of measuring and tracking how happy I am with my productive work. I rate my productivity and quality of work separately, on a scale from 1–10, with 10 being the highest. The monthly averages for productivity and quality before I made these changes were 5.6 and 4.3 respectively. After making these changes in my environment, those numbers jumped to 7.1 and 5.4, with no changes in the rating factors. That’s a 25% improvement in just a month!

Below are three very simple changes I made that paid enormous dividends.


Contextual Zoning

According to a report from Global Workplace Analysis, the number of people working remotely increased by 115% between 2007–2017. With the climbing popularity of remote-working arrangements, it is becoming increasingly tempting for people to work while in bed.

According to the Harvard University Division of Sleep Medicine, “It may help to limit your bedroom activities to sleep and sex only. Keeping computers, TVs, and work materials out of the room will strengthen the mental association between your bedroom and sleep.” So, working from bed is bad from your sleep. But could it also be bad for your work?

I resolved to change and went from writing on my bed at home to only writing in the college library. I made the library a specific contextual zone for writing.

I was more than pleased by the results of this change. Getting started with my writing seemed easier, and I was happier with the output.

In fact, I’m so pleased with these results that I now like to associate all different kinds of work I do with very specific zones: a sleep zone, a write & read zone, an eating zone, etc.

By strictly maintaining these contextual zones, I’ve prepared my subconscious mind to automatically prime itself according to the zone it sees. For example, when I walk into the college library, I automatically start thinking about what I’m going to write and read on that particular day.

You can extend this idea of contextual zone to your computer by using separate “desktops” for work and play—then switch between them according to your needs. (This can be particularly helpful for digital nomads who might have more challenges in establishing regular physical zones.) Here’s how to create different desktops in Windows, Mac, and Ubuntu.

If you don’t have access to a nearby library or you can’t leave your house, consider creating a work-office at home. If you must use the same physical space for work and watching Netflix, consider altering the layout of your desk for each context, and using soundscaping and lighting (two methods discussed next) to further reinforce the context.

Batching work is a great concept to couple with contextual zoning for an added boost. Switching from one type of work to another requires a sort of mental recalibration that’s called the “context-switching penalty”. Changing zones also comes with a penalty in time or reset of focus. If you physically move from one space to another, it involves some time and probably an extended break.

For example, if you spend an hour writing, then an hour attending meetings, then another hour writing, then another hour at a second meeting, you’ll be less effective (and probably feel more depleted) than if you’d spent a two-hour block writing and two hours in meetings. By batching the meetings and the writing, you avoid the transitions that take time and focus out of your day.

Batching tasks within the same zones in my day saves me a lot of brain fuel and time which would otherwise have been lost in the process of switching contexts. If I’m going to the library to write, I also schedule a block of reading time and do both on the same trip.

The quality and quantity of my creative output got a major boost by making this simple tweak of contextual zoning + batching.


Soundscaping

Imagine this: you’re in a library, writing. There isn’t pin-drop silence, but it still is relatively quiet, with just an occasional murmur here and there.

I used to think that this was the optimum condition for creativity and productivity. But it turns out I was wrong.

Negative noise impacts don’t just arise from people yelling and chairs screeching. Low volume sounds can also be problematic, especially irregularly occurring ones that make our ears perk up. Our brains take notice and the distraction takes away from our focus.

But, of course, it would be very impractical (and maybe even uncomfortable) to always work in a soundproof room. So what is optimal?

Enter ambient noise. “White noise” is much less distracting than irregular and interesting sounds. That is why I switched to putting on earphones with ambient noise playing, hence cutting out the occasional murmur and ruffling of pages. According to research published in the Journal of Consumer Research:

“Process measures reveal that a moderate (vs. low) level of noise increases processing difficulty, inducing a higher construal level and thus promoting abstract processing, which subsequently leads to higher creativity. A high level of noise, however, reduces the extent of information processing and thus impairs creativity.”

There are many ambient noise apps available now. I’m a fan of Thunderspace. The site Desk Jams offers music specifically curated to help you get into a flow state with work. Other curated collections include music for creative work, studying, gaming, meditation, and sleeping.

You can use sound combined with contextual zoning to help set a regular ritual to help you dive right into work. For example, I re-use certain soundtracks to tell my brain that it’s time to write, or time to call and text.

The benefit of sound-scaping is three-fold. It helps block out distracting sounds, it can be used prime the brain for specific type of work, and it can even lead to better focus and higher creativity


Lighting

Scientists have shown that quality of work, attention, and other factors are is heavily influenced by both the intensity and temperature of lighting. Science Magazine and the Daylight Academy recently published a booklet called Changing perspectives on daylight: Science, technology, and culture, which offers a detailed look at current research.

These kinds of findings are behind the growing popularity of programmable lights, especially with companies interested in improving worker productivity.

After a lot of experimentation, I’ve found color and intensity of light useful in optimizing my own work environments.

Lighting with a warm cast (slightly tending towards orange/red) is good for situations where you want to be comfortable and relaxed. Cooler lighting (tending towards the blue end if the spectrum) is good for creativity—light with a cool cast can actually lower melatonin and help boost your alertness.

I switch between either white or yellow light throughout my day. From the morning to the end of my productive hours, I stay in places as bright as possible. I’ve even worked out which spot in the college library gets the most light, and now I always go to that spot.

I’ve come to associate bright white light with productivity and creativity, and warm dim lights with unwinding and mental recovery. It’s been a very successful strategy.

The Power of Synergy

Combining all three elements—contextual zoning, soundscaping, and lighting—create powerful environmental cues and boosts that can help you be happier in your work. Here are some examples of ways to stack them for maximum impact:

  • If you’re a student programmer working on an app, leave the dorm room and code in a well-lit library while listening to ambient music.
  • If you’re a parent who also writes fiction, look for a relatively peaceful spot at home to use as your writing studio where there’s ample sunlight, and try playing some creativity-inspiring music in the background while writing.
  • If you’re a nomad who sketches portraits while traveling around the world, contextual zoning can be difficult as your environment is constantly changing. You can still surround yourself with familiar items to form a pseudo-zone. For example, consider a certain tablecloth which you lay your sketchbook on. Take this tablecloth wherever you go, lay it down, put your sketchbook on it, and your creativity will feel right at home. Use your headphones to block distractions and look for spots with the right lighting (perhaps a cafe window).

A huge plus of the application of these three concepts is how easy it is — once you develop the awareness and habits of optimizing your work environment. No matter what situation you’re in, you most probably will be able to make favorable changes in at least one of the three aspects in question: location, lighting, and sound.

The benefits to my work were pronounced: a 25% perceived boost in both output and quality. I hope you see similar benefits by applying these techniques.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Kunal Shandilya

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Made apps, self-driving toy cars, a space agriculture project, a life philosophy, lectured graduates on comp. hardware when 10—but I feel like I just started

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.