Productivity stems from two areas – what occurs in your mind and what occurs around you.
You’ll find countless tips to train your mind to be productive. But, little is spoken about how your surroundings influence your focus and concentration. Just like a chiseled physique requires a combination of a systematic workout regimen and a clean eating routine, to become productive you need to work on both your mind and your surroundings.
Besides, the current situation has pushed most of us to work behind doors in front of a computer. Therefore, the need to optimize your workplace for productivity is paramount.
In this article, we’ll talk about the common mistakes people commit with their workplace, and ways to tweak your surroundings to uplift your productivity.
The content is tailored to people who have desk jobs. So, if you majority of your work isn’t in front of a computer, this article isn’t relevant to you.
The common workplace productivity enhancements people ignore:
1. The chair/table
Whenever I attend a video call, I spot participants sitting on a bean bag or a random chair they found nearby. At times, people are on the couch too.
If you do not have a dedicated chair and table to work on, you’re allowing a major loophole in your productivity.
A seat too low or a table too high puts your body in a state of discomfort. Ergonomics are not only important for your spine and joints, but also for your productivity. If you’re in your early 20s, you might shrug off the ergonomics saying, “My back looks fine. I can even work lying down on the bed.” But, if your body isn’t comfortable, your mind cannot operate at full capacity. Instead of focusing on the task you’re working on, your brain tries to adjust the discomfort your body is going through.
How to fix it:
I had the habit of working anywhere and everywhere. I used to write code on the sofa, answer emails on the bed, and prepare reports on the kitchen counter. For the last 5 years, I have only worked on a dedicated desk and a chair, and I’ve realized the difference it made.
Currently, due to the pandemic, you spend 8 hours a day working from home. So, if you don’t have a work chair and a table yet, head to the nearest furniture store, or Amazon and place an order. Your mind and body will thank you.
A word of caution while you pick up a chair and table. Don’t randomly pick the shiniest item you find. Follow this guide to understand the right posture and take your height into account before you make a purchase.
Don’t choose the cheapest option available either. Even if the setup costs money, it’ll reap rewards each day in return like a stock with dividends.
If you set up a work chair and a desk, besides the productivity boost, you gain an added advantage. The physical workplace separates your professional and personal life. When you step away from your desk at the end of the day, your mind disconnects from work allowing you to enjoy a relaxed time with your loved ones.
2. The screen
Laptops are meant for portability, but unfortunately, people in IT use them for working the entire day. Research strongly indicates that usage of laptops for long working hours harms your joints, shoulders, and your neck.
When you’re working on a laptop, because the screen lies below your eye level, you have to peek down and strain your neck. If you raise your desk higher, your elbows and wrists remain unrested. To make that worse, the keyboard and touchpad of a laptop are constrained within a small space which force your shoulders to slouch.
All in all, laptops hurt your posture and hamper your productivity. If you’re not using a monitor, you’re losing out on a key element of efficiency.
How to fix it:
Today, monitors of all sizes come at an affordable price. Depending on your preference, you can either choose a 24 or a 27-inch screen. If you don’t know where to begin, you can refer to this guide. If budget is a concern, use a vertical laptop stand instead which can raise your laptop to eye level.
The more you convince yourself that you can manage with a laptop screen on a flat surface, the less productive you’ll be.
3. Keyboard and mouse
If you don’t want to buy a monitor, at least consider an external keyboard and a mouse.
If you’re using a screen, a keyboard and mouse combo is a must. Without them, you’ll spend two extra seconds scrolling on the big screen with a touchpad. Individually, those little moments appear minuscule, but when you’re in front of a computer for 8 hours a day, the numbers add up quickly.
A keyboard and a mouse are ergonomically better and operationally faster. Also, they hardly cost anything for the productivity improvement they provide in return.
4. Space on your table
If you have a cramped-up work desk, consider buying a bigger table. But size alone won’t change your productivity. The room on your table is no different than your hard disk. The more space you have, the more you’ll fill in.
When it comes to an organized desk, people fall under two categories: the ones who maintain a spick and span desk at all times, and the others who pile up their table and leave a mess.
Organized people are quick to advise others to clean up their desks every morning or night. But, before you follow that guideline use your own judgment.
One research paper(which I cannot locate anymore) indicated that each person has either a vertical or horizontal organizational style. Some people prefer to pick things from a stack of vertically arranged items whereas some others have an easier time finding things when they’re spread horizontally.
If you like keeping your desk organized with neat tall piles, you’re a vertical organizer. If papers, books, and stationery are spread across your table, you’re a horizontal organizer(I’m one too).
My desk isn’t organized like the furniture in IKEA. Quite often, I have markers, pencils, and notepads strewn all over my desk. But, they do not hamper my productivity. I’m not making an assumption based on my gut feel. I have tried to religiously maintain a clean desk for a month, but I found it more of a hindrance because it made access to stationery more laborious for me.
That said, I’ve had days when my desk was so full of things that I barely had space to move my mouse. After a certain point, yes, clutter does affect productivity, but you don’t always need to maintain an immaculate desk if it doesn’t bother you.
So, if you want to have your desk empty and shiny such that it shows the reflection of your face, go for it. If you prefer a reasonable amount of chaos on your desk like I do, stick to it.
Don’t blindly listen to the tips from the pros, but experiment and find out what works best for you. One method isn’t better than the other. The advice you hear is often biased towards what the person follows himself.
5. Keep things required near you
If you have to step away from your desk to drink a glass of water, you lose focus on the task at hand. Make no mistake, I’m not asking you to remain thirsty, but to avoid the interruption by having a bottle of water next to you.
Likewise, several other little tasks require you to step away from your desk, albeit for less than a minute. It’s not the duration that matters but the interruption itself. Have you noticed how your mind remains focused once you’re into a task? But the moment you distract yourself, you need a long time to get back in the zone again.
Such a tendency to remain distracted after a minor interruption occurs due to attention residue. When you step away from a task, you allow other thoughts to pop into your mind. You walk into the kitchen to fetch a glass of water, but you open the fridge just to check what’s in it(we all do that). You peek inside and notice you have your favorite crispy fried chicken for lunch. Now, even after you’re back at the desk, your mind is thinking about the juicy meat. These lingering thoughts called attention residue are the reason why multitasking impacts productivity.
How to fix it:
To avoid such distractions, keep all the required things around you:
- Pen, paper, clips, and any other stationery(to avoid walking near the TV to pick up a pen)
- A charging dock to charge your phone, tablet, laptop(to avoid a trip to the bedroom and a possible nap to fetch your charger)
- A water bottle on your table(to avoid walking into the kitchen each time you feel thirsty)
If you want to take it a step further, buy items in bulk so that you have ample supply and backup. I buy a box full of pens, and a bundle of A4 sheets so that I have enough. Even if I can’t find a pen(which happens often), I pick another one and get going. I also have extra charging cables just in case.
Another useful tip both from the point of productivity and health is to keep a large 1.5L water bottle on your desk. I found that the size was a good middle point. 1L/500ml require more trips to refill, whereas 2L and above are too heavy to handle.
So, fill a 1.5L bottle of water and keep it on your table before you start your day. Having a large bottle not only reduces the number of trips to the kitchen but also encourages you to drink more water which aids your health.
Please note: None of these trips intend to keep you glued to your chair for hours together. Continuous seated posture harms your back and joints. Therefore, you must make the effort to stand up once in an hour(or every other hour at worst) and take a short walk. The tips in the article intend to avoid the need to get off the seat when you’re already in focus mode. When you get off your seat, it should be a mindful decision, not because you had to fetch the notebook from your coffee table.
6. Working in isolation
A common practice in the current work from home scenario is to set up a table and a chair wherever you have space. But, for better productivity, you will have to plan beyond that.
When you set up a workspace consider aspects such as:
- The spot which is the quietest (the room farthest away from the hall)
- An area that has the least movement(The hall has the highest movement)
- Ensuring the wi-fi/phone has stable connectivity and coverage
If you’re a working couple, you should consider working in two different rooms so that your calls and other disturbances don’t interfere with each other. If that’s not an option, buy a pair of noise cancellation headphones or earplugs. They’ll do wonders to your focus.
Please note: How people choose to set up their workplace also varies based on individual style. I know people who do not want to use their bedroom for work to create a work-life balance. Some others prefer a larger open space and a flow of air for comfort.
Therefore, the tips mentioned in the article are guidelines that have to be tweaked to suit your personality and circumstances.
Working in a dark space causes eye strain and fatigue. For some, they also lead to headaches. Therefore, keep your workspace well lit and bright. If you have a window, leave the curtains open and allow natural light to fill in your room.
Most people feel more productive in a brighter than a darker environment.
If you’ve preferred a dark space to work all this while, you should attempt to work in a brighter location to experiment how it feels for you. Give your mind and body a few days to adjust to the change. If you begin liking a well-lit room, persist with it. If you don’t, feel free to revert to your darker workspace.
For many years I had the habit of keeping my curtains closed and using a bright light in my room. But when I kept the curtains open, I felt the sunlight made me more energetic and self-aware throughout the day.
8. Make it personal
Making your workspace personal can help you focus better. Here are some ideas:
- Add pictures of activities that you like
- List down the names of places that you want to visit
- Create a vision board
- Build a collage of the goals that you want to chase in the next 3-5 years
- Hang a motivational quote on the wall
Use any other ideas which will motivate you to do your best each day.
Two pointers on making it personal:
- Making your workspace personal is subjective. Some claim they benefit from it whereas some others mention that it makes no difference.
- When you’re adding stuff into your workspace, anything you include must serve a purpose. If not, you’re only adding to the clutter because your mind will ignore what you see daily due to selective attention.
The current pandemic has changed the way we operate and work. Going forward, even after the world returns to normal, most businesses are unlikely to resort to the old working model. Most people who work on a computer will have the privilege to work from home, at least partially.
Therefore, if you’re thinking, “This is only temporary, once I go back to the office, I’ll be productive again,” you should think again. A major shift in working style has already occurred and the change is here to stay. So, making an effort to set up your workspace for productivity at both office and your home is an absolute must if you want to stay a step ahead of the game.
What are some of the workplace setting mistakes you’re committing currently? Which one will you fix first?
Cherry, K. (n.d.). How we use selective attention to filter information and focus. Verywell Mind. Retrieved September 24, 2021, from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-selective-attention-2795022.
(PDF) lighting quality and its effects on productivity and human healts. ResearchGate. (n.d.). Retrieved September 24, 2021, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/308032041_Lighting_Quality_and_its_Effects_on_Productivity_and_Human_Healts.
Gold, Judith & Driban, Jeffrey & Yingling, Vanessa & Komaroff, Eugene. (2011). Characterization of posture and comfort in laptop users in non-desk settings. Applied ergonomics. 43. 392-9. 10.1016/j.apergo.2011.06.014.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.