How to optimize your workspace for productivity

I’m a huge productivity nerd. I love to geek out on all the new theories and concepts surrounding productivity, focus and psychology that support our best work. And within that realm, it is impossible to not hear about standing desks. I debated trying this setup for a long time as I thought it might be more distracting than anything else. Yet, seeing this topic come up over and over again and seeing some people absolutely swear by their standing desks, I thought I should give it a try. What better way to see if this works, if this is worth investing in and how can it can help me in my work. Additionally, my partner and I were about to move in a few short weeks so I dove into other modalities I could use to optimize my workspace for productivity.

The initial experiment

I am a huge fan of Dr. Huberman and his podcast, the Huberman lab where he mentions standing desks quite a bit. Therefore, a few months ago I decided I would give it a shot. I gave myself 1 week to see how I liked it.

The week would go as follows: I would try to stand for about 50% of my workday and sit for the other 50%. That said, I wasn’t going to be very strict about this 50% rule. For instance, if I

  • Was in the middle of a task I wouldn’t necessarily change positions just because I had to.
  • Got tired of sitting or standing, then I would switch
  • Noticed I was getting tired and my posture was suffering I would sit
  • Hit a point where my feet started to hurt or be sore

Then I would change positions regardless of my 50% limit.

The results of my experiment

The initial experiment was only one week. I didn’t have like a fancy electric desk, my setup was really just boxes and books. I keep my workspace pretty clear because as I work, I tend to get cluttered. Having these piles of books really bothered me. Plus, every time I wanted to sit or stand I had all these books and boxes to shuffle around.

Given my limited workspace when I was standing (using the tops of boxes as my work area) I tried to stay away from tasks where I needed to move my mouse a lot. This included graphic-type tasks like using Canva. Data entry was a little bit easier along with tasks that required a good amount of writing.

Even though there was a lot wrong with my setup, I still really enjoyed it. To the point where now that we have moved, I decided to buy a standing desk. Additionally, there were a couple of weeks when I just couldn’t stand to work in the middle of our move. This was when all of my precious boxes and books were packed away until my desk got delivered. I really missed being able to stand during that time.

My optimized desk

That initial 1-week trial turned into six. We moved and I ended up purchasing a 55″ electrical sit-stand desk from Wayfair. It’s just about the smallest size I would consider. I generally have multiple drinks when I work, my computer, my monitor, keyboard, iPad for handwritten notes, a book or two and then some. A large desk was a must.

Changing my environment for better focus

The first thing I really like is it just gives me another option to work in a different position, a different place. That is my number one favourite tool when it comes to not being very motivated to work: just changing my work setting. Whether that’s working from the couch, working from the kitchen table or now working while standing up! Bonus points here for the standing setup as for all the other options I mentioned, I’m not usually able to have my 2nd monitor.

Being able to work and stay focused for longer

The second benefit I noticed is for long tasks or long projects. I don’t necessarily want to stop midway, but I can feel that I’m getting tired. Then I’m not as focused as I was when I initially start but, I don’t really want to stop doing said task. I might take a short break, but otherwise being able to stand at that point to keep doing the work is quite nice. I feel a bit more awake and I have an easier time focusing.

All that to say, it’s actually improved my productivity quite a bit. Say I’ve worked for an hour and that’s when I start to get tired. I then stand up and I’m able to go about doing my task for another 30 minutes. That’s literally like an extra 50% of work that I just did where I’m able to redial my focus and where I feel more awake.

Supporting my varying energy levels during the day

I also love to work standing up after lunch as a way to avoid the energy dip I sometimes get around 2 PM. If I’m still feeling pretty on, I’ll sit and keep doing a fairly demanding task. Otherwise, I’ll switch to a creative or slightly demanding one. I’m aware I use a lot of my capacity in the morning and I just have a little bit less energy in the afternoon. I organize my day to fit this pattern.

Optimized work posture

There is some really interesting science about this. If you want to learn more, definitely go check out Dr. Huberman and his podcast as he talks about it quite a bit. Here are the keynotes when it comes to posture, focus and productivity.

Where your feet are in relation to your body.

There are plenty of studies that show that the higher your feet in relation to the rest of your body, the more you’ll have a tendency to want to rest or to be sleepy.

Imagine you are sitting in a normal chair where your feet are on the ground or you’re standing. In both cases, your feet are well below you. However, if you were sitting on a couch where your legs are out in front of you and your feet are at the same level as your body, you will naturally have a tendency to get drowsy and a little bit more tired.

If I’m doing something a bit more creative, I’m a bit more relaxed. It’s fine. But when it comes to like really depending on focused work, it’s not ideal. This is why I choose the moments where I will go work on the couch.

Now, if you’re someone like me where you don’t do this often, then the fact that it’s new might offset that tendency to get a little bit drowsy. But again, I will pick and choose the types of tasks that I want to do on the couch.

Head and eye position

It’s been proven that when you look up, you tend to feel more awake and to be more awake. Now, the theory is that that is how you would look, let’s say if you’re looking at the sun or the sky outside during the day. Your brain will register that and be like, okay, it’s time to be awake.

If you look down, which is something you have a tendency to do as you’re getting sleepy and as your lids tend to close slowly. Your brain will register that as a sign it’s time to rest and to get even more sleepy. Therefore, if you want to feel more awake naturally you need to be looking slightly up.

A really easy trick is to put your monitors at eye level or a little bit higher, so you’re not looking down. Now, some people will say that it’s not great for posture. You do have to be mindful about how you are sitting and have a good posture. Ideally, only your eyes are positioned slightly up, as opposed to your whole head.

Lighting for optimized focus

Another tip for when you’re trying to be awake and focused is to have an overhead light. I mentioned above how looking up and being able to see the light coming from above is a great way to be awake and enhance focus.

Artificial Light

You can also promote this by literally having a light above you. I currently have just a little desk lamp that I set up above me. Ultimately, maybe I’m thinking about getting literally a light that will be on the ceiling to bring even more light into this environment. Obviously, that’s only artificial light, but it can still be beneficial.

You would want to turn this off, say around four or 5:00 PM. That is when your body registers that the end of the day is drawing near and to start relaxing and get ready for sleep in a few hours. The recommendation at that point is to reduce the lights as much as possible.

Obviously, if you’re the kind of person that’s trying to stay up and alert until late, you would do the opposite. That is have all the lights turned on to trick your brain into staying awake.

Natural Light

I’ve only mentioned artificial lights so far but you get even more of these benefits with natural light. That is why it is generally recommended to go outside for at least 10 minutes in the morning and to go outside again at sundown. Another way to take advantage of this is by having windows in your workspace. Now, you won’t get as much benefit from light through a window as you would going outside but it’ll still help keep your brain awake and primed to focus.

As a quick recap, you can leverage these benefits for your work in a few different ways:

  • Overhead light
  • Desk work lamps (or any other bright light)
  • Windows
  • Outside light exposure (yes, even when it’s cloudy!) in the morning and at sundown

How the shape of your physical space impacts your work

It has been proven that bigger spaces are more conducive to creative thinking, problem-solving or anything in the realm of thinking outside the box. In contrast to smaller spaces, which are more conducive to data analytics, mathematical type work. This is called the cathedral effect and the biggest factor here will be the height of the ceiling. If you’re working in a basement where the ceiling might be a little bit lower, it’ll be more conducive to data analysis and such.

When it came to my work setting, I had the option to either set up my desk in a guest room, in the basement or in a smaller living room that we have in our home. I say living room but this was your typical “this could be anything you want it to be non-descript” space.

This is where I decided to set up. Even just visiting the house you could feel how much smaller it felt to be in those guest rooms as opposed to the living room (now study). I had already experimented with working in smaller rooms, having my desk face a wall, working in bigger rooms, rooms with more or fewer windows and natural light. I noticed a huge difference in my mood and how I genuinely enjoyed being in that space. Therefore, I chose the living room with the big window and my desk facing the space (as opposed to the wall which was turned into a bookshelf).

It’s all about the feeling

Your workspace to be inviting and exciting, like your work running your own business. What you do is hard enough as it is, make it easier by having a really inviting and exciting space.

One of the ways I did this in my workspace is by painting the walls are really cool green colour, which you might have seen in my content already. We also made our own bookshelves by sanding and painting pine boards. I love having these around and being permanently surrounded by my books and other trinkets.

I also set up some plants as I looooove plants as I love seeing green in my space! We’ll also be adding other decor elements to make this a super cozy book room/workspace.

What you smell can also help you focus. I want to say Rosemary’s one of these smells. Don’t quote me on that. But again, that is something that might be worth experimenting with. I love a good candle or a good essential oil in my diffuser to set the mood in my workspace. It’s also helpful to increase that dopamine hit and get a little bit more motivated to work (we all get those days).

Creating this optimized space for yourself

I realize how privileged I am to even have this many options to choose from. This wasn’t always the case. Prior to this space, I had to get creative to create this. Here are a few suggestions for you:

  • Experiment with your desk facing the wall or the room
  • Wear a baseball hat or hoodie to artificially “lower the ceiling” of the room
  • Use a light therapy box if you don’t have a lot of natural light
  • Make it a priority to go outside in the morning and in the evening
  • Books and boxes to create a sit-stand desk (also great to test if you like it enough to purchase this kind of desk)
  • Try different scents using candles and diffusers
  • Make your space an inviting and exciting place to be! You’ll be here a lot so you might as well enjoy it!

I hope this inspires you to create your own awesome workspace area! If you’re someone who tends to have a bit of a messy workspace – clear your workspace after work every day. You don’t have to deep clean your entire desk. It doesn’t have to look like one of those minimalist videos – just clear the space you need for your computer. It’ll go a long way if you don’t have to clean before you even start doing anything. You can just get straight to it!

Ultimately the best way to know if some of these tips work for you is to just try. If you don’t want to invest in some fancy stuff, I’m sure there is a way that you can have a scaled-down version of it, even if it involves piles of books and boxes.

Resources

If you spruce up or spice up your workstation, or your work area, I’d love to see it! Take a picture and tag me @anneso.pelletier on Instagram.

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