How to optimise your workspace for focus and productivity

A lot of times when we lose focus at work or are not as productive as we could be, we do not really think much about it and we just blame it on last night’s dinner or lack of sleep. However, our focus and productivity depends largely on our lifestyle habits and how we set up our workspace. In other words, the combination of workspace and neural optimisation will help increase focus and productivity. 

Most of this article is based on Andrew Huberman’s podcast, who is a Neuroscience Professor and Lab Director at Standford.

Ground Rules to follow #

Before we delve deeper, there are some ground rules that we need to follow:

  • Limit all distractions, such as put your mobile phones away or if you do not need the internet to work, disconnect your computer from your wifi. 
  • Sit up for 50% of your work time and stand up during the other 50%. Based on studies, people who decrease their sitting times by half showed incredibly significant effects with reduced neck and shoulder pains. Increase in health and vitality in work environments in cognitive condition and the ability to embrace new tasks have also been recorded. 
  • For every 45 minutes that you are working on your laptop, take 5 minutes break and look outside or a panoramic view.

The phases of the circadian rhythm #

There are three phases to optimising your workspace and they are all co-dependant on the phases of the circadian rhythm during your work time (excluding sleeping time). 

The three phases of the circadian rhythm are: 

  • Phase one: 0-9 hours from waking time 
  • Phase two: 9-16 hours from waking time 
  • Phase three: 12-14 hours from waking time

How do the circadian rhythms work? #

The circadian rhythms throughout the body are connected to a master clock,6sometimes referred to as the circadian pacemaker, located in the brain. Specifically, it is found in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which is in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. At different times of the day, clock genes7 in the SCN send signals to regulate activity throughout the body.

The SCN is highly sensitive to light, which serves as a critical external cue that influences the signals sent by the SCN to coordinate internal clocks in the body. For this reason, circadian rhythms are closely connected to day and night. While other cues, like exercise, social activity, and temperature, can affect the master clock, light is the most powerful influence on circadian rhythms. 

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Phase one: Let the light in (Analytical and detailed work) #

Before attempting to optimise your workspace for productivity, focus and creativity, you will need to learn how to hack your body to optimise yourself for these purposes. 

Step 1: Wake up in the morning and expose yourself to daylight or sun.  #

If you can, get some sun before or on your way to work as exposure to sunlight is thought to increase the brain’s release of a hormone called serotonin. Serotonin is associated with boosting mood and helping a person feel calm and focused. If you cannot go outside and if there is no sun, open all your curtains and if you do not have windows, use a smart light, a ring light or a light pad to create white or blue light. The white or blue light will keep you awake and help with focus. 

Step 2: Set up your screen properly  #

Due to the way our eye muscles are set up, if your screen is located below your nose level, this will make you less alert as your eyes will let your brain know that they are looking down as opposed to looking up. This may result in a decrease in focus.

Raise your laptop or monitor to at least your nose level to direct your sight upwards. You do not really need expensive gears to do this, books or boxes should suffice. Sitting up straight will help increase focus as opposed to reclining as the latter will signal your brain to relax and get in sleep mode. Your autonomic arousal will determine your alertness based on where you place your screen. 

Step 3: Choose your type of work #

Choosing your type of work matters as your mind and body works different at different times of the day. 

The first 7-9 hours of the day after waking up is very crucial for work that require more attention such analytical and detailed type of work, and the bright light will facilitate focus during that time.  Studies have shown that working in a more restrictive room or low ceiling will assist with better focus. Alternatively, using a cap or a hoodie to create the illusion of a low ceiling will work as well. 

Phase two: Dim the lights (Creative type work) #

Step 4: Slightly reduce the lighting intensity #

As we advance through the day, our focus and productivity changes. In order to get the mind and body ready for the stage of the day we need to reduce the lighting because the clock genes in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) send signals to regulate activity throughout the body based on lighting. If your environment is too bright, it would be recommended to dim the lights slightly and switch off any overhead light. Still keep the lights to a white and blue light. 

Step 5: Choose your type of work and its environment  #

As previously discussed in phase one – step three, choosing the type of work matters. As you dim the lights in your workspace, this also affects the type of work. As the first 9 hours after waking are optimal conditions for analytical and detailed work, phase two (9-16 hours after waking up) is crucial for creative work. However, to optimise your creativity during phase two will require some tweaking to your environment or completely changing scenery. 

Studies have shown that the cathedral effect tends to favour creative work more that analytical work. For example, working in a high ceiling place or in a coffee shop with high ceiling in the afternoon will help with creative tasks and that is partly because a high versus low ceiling can prime the concepts of freedom versus confinement, respectively. On a variety of measures, ceiling height–induced relational or item-specific processing was indicated by people’s reliance on integrated and abstract versus discrete and concrete ideation. 

Phase three: Switch the lighting from white to yellow/red (wrapping up your day) #

Step 6: Mood lighting  #

In the last phase of your working day, it is important to change the lighting of the environment from white to red/yellow and this includes your laptop screens, monitors and mobile phones. Mobile devices can be automatically set to change screen colours from white to yellow. Normally a lot of us tend to wrap up our day by then, which comes to about 5/6pm. This is due to when exposed to natural light, a person’s circadian rhythm becomes closely synchronised with sunrise and sunset, staying awake during the day and sleeping when it gets dark and because our ancestors have been exposed to this for centuries, it would make sense that our bodies’ biology adapted to this environmental change to regulate its master clock. 

It is not always possible to completely reduce mobile phone usage at this time, but the change in the lighting of your mobile device should help in preparing your mind and body for the night.

Conclusion #

By exposing yourself to a yellow/red light in late afternoon/evening you are setting yourself up for a good night sleep that is beneficial for your mind and body and important for focus and productivity. Lack of sleep will inevitably throw off your circadian rhythms and this will drastically affect more than just focus and productivity.

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