How your environment hurts your work – and how to fix it

The anatomy of a creative workspace

We often think of productivity as a state of mind – but it’s so much more than that. It’s not just about exerting focus or effort, it’s also about cultivating the right space that can help us get things done.

This is known as “shaping the path.” Rather than relying solely on willpower and planning, we change our environment to make it easier for us to perform well. After all, it’s already difficult to force yourself to be more productive or more creative. How can you set up a working environment that’s more conducive to, well, working?

Visual clutter: inspiring or distracting?

Since it’s the easiest factor to assess, your visual surroundings are the best place to start.

First, remove any clutter that distracts you visually. According to a study from the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, too much stimulus within your line of sight can easily distract you and prevent you from focusing. Take a quick look around your work area and see if there’s anything competing for your attention. If there is, find a way to block or remove it so that you’re not inadvertently distracted.

There is a time, however, when your extra stuff might come in handy: during brainstorming. Research from the International Communication Association shows that when brainstorming, having relevant visual stimuli can help you better explore the subject. If the stimuli is irrelevant, it can help you break out of conventional thinking.

A mind as clear as day

Lighting also plays an important role in productivity. A technical report from the California Energy Commission shows that having daylight-like illumination in the office had significant positive effects on mental function and attention.

Speaking of daylight, the same report shows that having a pleasant view is also associated with better performance – as long as there’s no glare from the windows.

The sounds of productivity

As we’ve covered in the past, music can play many different roles in your productivity. This is reinforced by a study published in Psychology of Music, showing how music affects the work performance of computer information systems developers. According to the study, when there was no background music, the quality of the work and the mood of the workers was lower.

Also, if the people in your office are already used to listening to music while they work, suddenly taking it away can have negative effects. From the study:

“[W]hen music is removed in such music listening work cultures there is a psychological withdrawal of an important stimulus. Developers experience the negative effects of the removal of a stimulus they have come to depend on. The negative effects of removing the music are found in lowered state positive mood responses, slightly lowered quality-of-work, and more time spent on tasks than originally intended.”

The Mozart effect

Still, it’s not just about listening to music in general – the type of music you listen to matters. Research published in Psychological Science showed how people performed better on spatial tasks after listening to a Mozart sonata. They performed better on the task when compared to people who just listened to silence or listened to a slower, sad piece. This has often been called the “Mozart effect.”

Does this mean you have to listen to Mozart when you work? Not exactly, though it is a common misconception. Another study from the University of Toronto at Mississauga had similar results – yet they also found that the “Mozart effect” was present when, instead of silence, people listened to a story before performing a spatial task.

In other words, any advantages the participants had weren’t really from the music per se, but from listening to something they preferred. The real lesson here is to be mindful of the types of music you enjoy listening to, see how they affect your mood and attention, then listen to the ones that make you feel better or more excited when you work.

The need for ambient noise – in moderation

If you’re not really into music, ambient noise might be more up your alley. An article published in the Journal of Consumer Research shows how a moderate amount of ambient noise can increase performance on creative tasks. This can be a challenge when you’re working someplace where complete silence is needed, such as the library, or where the noise pollution is too much that it’s breaking your focus. In both cases, you can try tools like Coffivity (ambient sounds from a coffee shop) and Rainy Mood (the sound of rain with optional Chopin).

Go natural

Even with the right music, the right amount of ambient noise, and a squeaky clean office, it might not be a good idea to keep ourselves indoors throughout the workday. Taking a break in a natural environment can help restore your attention when you’re mentally fatigued. Also, a 2008 study from the University of Michigan showed that walking in an arboretum helped participants perform better on memory tests, so if you have access to some trees or a garden near your office, taking a short walk there might help.

And even if you don’t have any natural scenery nearby, a picture will do. The same University of Michigan study showed that even looking at pictures of nature scenes had a positive effect.

Own your workspace

Google is known for letting their engineers design their own work stations, giving them the freedom to customize their space depending on what works for them. Even without that level of flexibility, most of us have some autonomy on what we can do with our workspace. From playing ambient noise through your headphones to working next to a beautiful daytime view, even simple changes can give us an environment that’s more conducive to doing better, more creative work.

Post by Celine Roque

Celine Roque is an independent author and marketer focused on entrepreneurship, marketing, and creative work. Her writing has appeared in Gigaom and The Content Strategist.