Zoning in: curating your work environment

This one is a bit left-of-field for my usual drabbles, but something that’s quite important to me as someone who sits behind a computer. Whether your daily grind is in an office, amongst cubicles or from your kitchen table at home, one of the most important aspects of consistent productivity is creating an environment that promotes it.

1) Atmosphere and Stimuli.

I’m not one for tidiness, and most people who know me in person can attest to this. Enthusiastically. And research has shown that a cluttered (or perhaps just busy?) work desk has real impact on creativity. Conversely, of course, if you can’t find anything you’re trying to work on for the mess you’ve created, then perhaps it’s worth sorting out some of the junk. There’s a difference between messy and dirty!

I believe much of it has to do with how creative minds are stimulated. We glance about, drawing inspiration from whatever lies in our immediate vicinity – the yellow from the bananas on your right, the curvature of the antique tea cup to your left, the way the view out your window reflects against the clear plastic of your 30cm ruler. Visual learners revel in visual stimuli, it goes without saying. If you’re a visual kind of worker, don’t be shy about giving yourself plenty of visual cues. Stacks of books, photos, a jar of trinkets, a drawer of colourful pens, whatever you enjoy idly staring at.

Kinesthetic learners also benefit from stimuli-laden environments. You’ll know if you’re the kinesthetic kind: your knee bounces; your hands find their way to anything that can be flicked, poked, twisted, clicked; your pens may have chew marks. You find it easier to think if you’re fiddling, and your rubbish bin is full of broken Bic pens. A sparse environment robs you of stimuli! Thankfully the millenial generation is full of fiddly nerds that love creating pointless fiddle fodder – if twisting, poking, stroking, clicking and pressing makes your creative juices flow, cater to it. Stuff the tidy desk. Just don’t let it get dirty, grimy, smelly or any other flavour of off-putting.

2) Speaking of Stimuli…

Did we forget auditory learners? Nope!

I’m a little of all the above, to be honest; the sound side of things is something I’ve honed to an art over the years. Misophonia is not fun (see, it’s totally a thing – you’re not crazy). Headphones are your best friend if you work in an office with others, especially noise-cancelling earbuds. The key point here is to use sound to remove the distractions and stimuli of the world around you, and draw your focus toward the task at hand.

If I could share one little pearl of wisdom with everyone struggling to get their heads down and pump out work, it would be this: ambient, ambient, ambient. Curating your perfect sound curtain is like painting; ambience is your foundation.

Don’t be afraid to overlay, especially if you have good Internet. Soft music (ideally without lyrics!) or gentle sounds over the top of ambience can have the effect of transporting you from the office to somewhere with a friendlier, more productive atmosphere. This is the idea behind Coffitivity, with research to back up how it changes cognition – try it, and see if it makes a difference.

All this said, these are the tools I use when I need to focus for a long time in one sitting – finishing a design, mocking up, or fixing bugs. Most of this goes straight out the window when I’m starting the design process (chillstep and lighter drum and bass feature heavily here), or when I’m mashing out markup (stuff it, give me metal and EDM). Grab your headphones, or your obnoxiously big speakers if you work alone, and create a sound toolkit to push you through the day.

3) Colours Have Meaning!

As a Graphic Designer, I love to look into the psychology of colour; not in the weird, touchy-feely way that the Internet seems to gravitate towards, but in transporting knowledge from branding theory to your work environment.

This certainly has more impact for freelancers, but if your place of work offers any flexibility in workspace setup, it’s worth exploring effective, low-budget improvements – even if they won’t let you repaint the wall. I’ve seen some seriously cool freelancer workspaces around the place, and while some do take advantage of colour to bring inspiration and mood to the area, others make use of texture, or simply cover the wall in books and inspo fodder – back to the above points about clutter!

At my last place of work, we painted one wall of the studio a leafy green; bit of a bold colour, given the company’s key colour was purple, but it did have the soothing effect I intended it to.

I would have loved adding better lighting (hint: fluoro lighting is the enemy of concentration) but without the budget, we wound up with desk lamps. If you’re finding the lighting in your room to be hampering your concentration, try experimenting with a darkened room and the addition of a desk lamp with halogen or LED bulbs and see what happens.

4) Just Get Up and Leave

Hitting your head against the wall with a problem that refuses to be solved? Developer life, yo. Sitting at your desk and staring at it harder isn’t going to make the problem go away, this much we all know to be true.

If you’re a freelancer, or if your boss is awesome, skive off for a moment. No, seriously. Walk away.

An excellent past boss of mine would see when Developers were hitting the wall; there’s a fine line between fixing a hard problem, and working yourself up into a useless frenzy. He’d simply get the Developer’s attention (and be proven correct; the response to the interruption was often loud and profane), and tell them to go get an ice cream. A fair amount of huffing and puffing later, said Developer would walk out; we knew he was right, we had to get away from the screen and get some fresh oxygen into our lungs. And no sane Designer or Developer would turn down the opportunity to run for a coffee!

There’s a lot of research on the matter of distracting oneself, often simply expressed as ‘Shower Thoughts’; and while I’m a proponent of random showers when your brain is clogged, in the middle of the day a coffee run, a quick drive, a stroll through the park or a trip to the lunch room if all else fails all achieve the same thing – removing you from the screen.

5) …and Don’t Come Back for a While

If you are granted such freedoms, I highly recommend dragging your gear to a coffee shop or park and scribbling in an environment with other human beings milling about. Whether or not you need yet another flat white is moot, but there’s nothing quite like getting the Coffitivity sounds straight from the source. Think of it as milking shower thoughts with gusto.

Can’t get away? That’s fine – we have tools to simulate the environment, as you’ve seen above.

The take-home point from this one is that mixing up your working week is creativity food. How you do this is up to you; maybe you compress your 40-hour week into four days every couple of months and take a day off to yourself to ‘un-brain’, or maybe you have a remote station you work from occasionally. This will be a measure of your own creativity, as well as how cool your boss is (if you’re your own boss, be nice to your employee(s)!).

Another awesome boss of mine would send the entire studio down to the magazine shop a short drive away once a month, in the lay period between our own magazines being published. She would have us either buy or photograph great new designs we saw, take notes, talk crap and meander around, and we’d always return with something to implement in our own magazines. While it was never strictly ‘work’ we were doing during this time, she saw the value in throwing off our monotonous routine in the interest of introducing new trains of thought. I can’t thank her enough for this.

6) If Nothing Else, Just Change Stuff Up.

For many of us, work is not interesting. We do it to put food in the fridge, but we don’t burst out of bed in the morning with the same enthusiasm as we do when we’re about to go on holiday. Whether your career is one you chose out of interest or necessity, it’s never guaranteed to be interesting the entire time.

Monotony comes with its own dangers; depression and burnout are the obvious ones, but their slippery slide from neutral can be sneaky.

Change is the enemy of monotony. And change doesn’t need to be extreme.

You have the power to make little adjustments: arrive and finish earlier, add a bookshelf, take a walk at lunch time, choose a new coffee shop, add some posters or affirmations to your wall, add a whiteboard or a lamp, splash out on a set of AWESOME headphones.

For those of you who, like me, went to the extreme and became a Freelancer: brofist. You got this.

Go on, give it a shot. Get out there and curate your workspace!