Since working from home has solidified its place as the “new normal,” we’re chockablock with tips for work-from-home productivity: have a morning routine, maintain a consistent schedule, dress in real clothes (maybe not hard pants, but not pajamas either). We also know all about taking frequent work breaks, utilizing a sit-stand desk, and incorporating microworkouts.
Those things are all important, to be sure, but routines or work breaks aren’t the only keys to being more productive. Your physical environment also affects productivity for better or worse. One of the big advantages of working from home is having total control over your workspace. Even if you’re taking over half the dining table or squeezing into a closet (which can be nicer than it sounds!), you can spruce up your workspace and tailor it to your preferences. After all, it’s part of your home, so you want to like being there.
Most of us probably aren’t paying enough attention to the sensory environment—what we see, hear, and smell while we work. Easy, inexpensive touches can increase both happiness and productivity. Here’s where to start.
The Eyes Have It
You might feel like you spend all day looking at a computer screen, but that’s not really the case. The rest of your visual field can significantly impact productivity and stress levels. Consider the following.
It’s hard to get good work done in a dark, dreary space. Stanford neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman stresses the importance of getting bright light in the first nine hours after waking. Specifically, he recommends strong overhead lighting and having lights directly in front of you. These stimulate the release of dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine to increase alertness and focus.1Morning light is also a powerful zeitgeber—a cue that regulates circadian rhythm, which promotes optimal daytime energy and nighttime sleepiness.
Ideally, the sun provides this morning light, so set up your desk by a window if possible. Research shows that people who work in windowless offices get poorer sleep than their colleagues who get daylight in their workspaces.2 You can also use artificial white lights overhead and/or supplement with lamps if your workspace isn’t well lit naturally. Don’t make it so bright that you have to squint or get headaches or eyestrain, but otherwise, turn up those lights.
Nature is Calling
Ideally, your home office contains a window that lets in the light and allows you to see some nature—trees, a garden, a neighborhood park. If you can’t be near a window, or your window faces a concrete jungle, bring some nature indoors with houseplants. Heck, get some houseplants even if your home office looks out onto a lush garden. Studies show that indoor plants34
If you’re one of the rare people who didn’t pick up a few—or a few too many—plants while stuck at home in 2020, now’s a great time to test your green thumb. Grab a peace lily, ivy plant, spider plant, or chrysanthemum, which are thought to have superior air-purifying benefits. Select some succulents if you have trouble remembering to water your potted friends.
Still make an effort to go outside as often as possible. Abundant evidence confirms that time in nature elevates mood, improves focus and attention, lowers stress, and promotes creative thinking. Have walking meetings during the day. Take your laptop to a local park. Eat lunch in the sun. No matter how nice your home office space is, try to get out of it every day.
Use Color to Set the Tone
While many studies have examined the effect of room color on cognitive performance, no hue seems to consistently enhance or detract from productivity. Color preferences are apparently quite idiosyncratic.
You can still use color to your advantage, though. Pick a color scheme for your home workspace that feels best. If your work lends itself to being in a calm, relaxed state, you might want to start with blues, greens, or perhaps shades of yellow. On the other hand, if you work better in a more heightened state of arousal, you might like more saturated red tones. Some people like to be surrounded by white because they find it less distracting, while others find it boring and energy-sapping.
If you don’t want to commit to an entire office makeover, start with a few colorful accessories. Or paint one accent wall and see if you’re more or less inspired to work.
Using Sound to Increase Productivity
The acoustic environment in which you work is very important. Sounds can be distracting and stress-inducing, or they can help your brain focus and improve your mood during your workday.
Research suggests that music enhances cognitive performance and happiness during the workday—if it’s music you like.6 At home, you have complete control over the playlist; but if you’re returning to an office environment where you’re subjected to coworkers’ questionable music taste, you might want to invest in noise-canceling headphones to optimize your productivity. Music with lyrics and sad (minor key) music can interfere with attention and performance, so opt for upbeat instrumentals.
Nature sounds like birds and running water tend to reduce stress and increase productivity, even in the presence of human sounds like voices or traffic noise. On the other hand, mechanical sounds like air conditioners or boilers have the opposite effect.Open that window or download an app to provide the sweet sounds of nature.7
With binaural beats, tones are transmitted to your left and right ear at slightly different times. The mismatch stimulates certain brainwave patterns and, depending on the frequency, produces effects like relaxation and stress relief. Some binaural beats can bolster learning and memory, promote divergent or creative thinking, and enhance cognitive flexibility.89 They do this in part by stimulating dopamine release which, again, heightens focus and attention. Dr. Huberman recommends starting with binaural beats at a frequency of 40 hertz, which has been shown in studies to have the greatest effect on work-related cognitive functions. He suggests listening to binaural beats for 30 minutes before starting work to prime the pump, so to speak.
Overall, as with color, people’s sound preferences are highly individual. Some people work best in quiet environments, while others prefer music, white noise, or even more cacophonous spaces like coffee shops. If you’re like me, your preferences change from day to day or task to task. Sometimes you need total silence to concentrate, and other times you crave some background noise. Thus, the best course of action is probably to go by feel, tailoring your acoustic environment to what resonates in the moment (no pun intended). Any noise, even a pleasant one, can be distracting if it is too loud, so watch the overall volume level.
What’s That Smell?
Don’t forget your olfactory environment. The way your workplace smells can increase focus, memory, and goal setting. Specific odors may also reduce stress and put you in a better headspace for getting good work done.10
Peppermint, cinnamon, and rosemary are generally considered beneficial for productivity. Lavender, vanilla, and sandalwood can be relaxing, which might be good or bad depending on what you need. As with everything else we’ve discussed here, scents are personal. Certain ones may have strong positive or negative associations for you based on prior learning. Maybe a beloved teacher always smelled like roses, or you were in a terrible car accident in a vehicle that smelled like pine. Those odors will probably always evoke specific feelings for you, so pick ones you like.
More generally, fresh air is always preferable to stale, stuffy air, which is yet another reason to open that window. You might also consider investing in an air purifier to remove unpleasant odors and improve air quality.
Small Changes, Big Impact on Productivity?
Your environment directly affects how happy, motivated, and productive you are. The goal is to create a space where you feel comfortable, focused, and ready to tackle your workload each day.
Each of the modifications suggested here requires a low investment in time or money, but they could definitely pay off in terms of getting better work done. Rather than prescribe a specific office set-up, I’d encourage you to pay close attention to how your environment makes you feel. Energized and alert? Expansive and creative when the situation calls for it, and focused and task-oriented when that’s appropriate instead? Irritable or calm? Happy or dejected? High energy or low?
If there’s one thing to take away from this post, it’s that everyone’s needs and preferences are different. My best advice is to optimize for optionality and flexibility. Start with a well-lit, quiet, and comfortable workspace. Connect to nature through windows and/or plants. Then use sound and scents to fine-tune on a day-by-day or project-by-project basis.
And, if something isn’t working one day, change it! Go outside or hit up a coffee shop. Light a candle. Blast some tunes. Take a nap. Take full advantage of the freedom afforded to you by working at home!
What say you? What are the best (or worst) things you’ve done to make working from home more enjoyable and effective? Tell your fellow readers in the comments below.
Lindsay Taylor, Ph.D., is a senior writer and community manager for Primal Nutrition, a certified Primal Health Coach, and the co-author of three keto cookbooks.
As a writer for Mark’s Daily Apple and the leader of the thriving Keto Reset and Primal Endurance communities, Lindsay’s job is to help people learn the whats, whys, and hows of leading a health-focused life. Before joining the Primal team, she earned her master’s and Ph.D. in Social and Personality Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, where she also worked as a researcher and instructor.
Lindsay lives in Northern California with her husband and two sports-obsessed sons. In her free time, she enjoys ultra running, triathlon, camping, and game nights. Follow along on Instagram @theusefuldish as Lindsay attempts to juggle work, family, and endurance training, all while maintaining a healthy balance and, most of all, having fun in life.