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Best ways to optimise your workspace according to neuroscience
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Not that long ago idea of working from home seemed only attainable to freelancers, people employed by a small number of very progressive companies, or as a fishy idea described in motivational business books of late nineties. The global pandemic has changed that. Sure, the idea of working from home was gaining traction before 2020 but the pandemic not only solidified the idea as practical and rational but showed that it’s a realistic alternative to office-based work.

If working from home is satisfying to you is only for you to decide, however, many found it enjoyable with its many benefits, such as savings in time and money, which would have otherwise been spent on commuting, or ability to adjust your work environment anyway you want – no more debates about the thermostat settings with your colleagues. To everyone the positives of working from home are different, for you it may be the ability to sleep in longer, for others it might be access to a personal fridge stuffed with preferred food options, opportunity to work with loved ones from the same location or simply the opportunity to work while having you favourite slippers on.. But one thing in common that everyone working from home must deal with is the question of how to optimize personal space for optimal work performance?

When you work from the office, usually the company you’re employed by makes sure that the settings are optimal for productivity and engagement, and if a company isn’t sure about the best approach, it will usually hire a company or a group of experts that specialise in this particular area. At home, it’s all left up to you to decide on how to design the perfect workspace. It can get a bit confusing how to tackle this issue but with an open mind and a bit of trial and error, it can be done.

According to Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist, a tenured professor in the Department of Neurobiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, and a host of a popular podcast called “Huberman Lab” here are some good starting points:

  1. Lighting

When it comes to lighting, it’s more than choosing the right lamp from IKEA. Even though that’s a difficult task in itself. During the first 8 hours of waking up, human beings are most alert. It has to do with high levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in the body during this timeframe of the wake-sleep cycle. During this time, we are best primed to do deep and analytical thinking. This alertness can be stimulated using lighting. The most effective way to do that indoors is to use overhead light. Standing liquid bubbly lights or desk lamps may be cute but then it comes to boosting alertness (and productivity simultaneously) – using strong overhead light is your best option.

However, then it comes to overall activation of your body and mind, nothing can beat sunlight. Besides helping you to wake up, it will also help to regulate your circadian rhythms. A circadian rhythm, sometimes referred to as a circadian cycle, is a natural, internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle and repeats roughly every 24 hours. Even though sunlight through the window is approximately fifty times less effective at all of these than being outside, it’s still a good idea to position your desk in from of a window, rather than a wall, to get that additional sunlight. It’s also good for your eyesight because it helps to offset time you spend watching at screens (just don’t look directly into the sun).

Important note: after 8 hours of waking up, it’s a good idea to start limiting light exposure and start to dim the lights in order not to deplete melatonin levels and keep your circadian rhythms intact. The closer you are to sleeping time, the less of bright light you should observe.

  1. Visual focus

Sitting with a bad posture isn’t only bad for your back, it also influences your productivity and performance. In fact, when it comes to visual focus, viewing direction and levels of alertness are highly correlated.

It’s important to know, that when we look down the neurons trigger calmness and sleep and when we look up the neurons activate the alertness. This should be taken in consideration than positioning a screen. It should be lifted at least to a nose level for optimal focus. The screen should be directly in front of you and it’s a good idea to avoid reclining while sitting. Keep that in mind when looking for an office chair.

  1. Body posture

Have you ever noticed that when you feel fatigued and stand-up to fill your cup of coffee or get a snack you suddenly feel more awake? It is because when we stand up, locus coeruleus neurons become more active and in turn we become more alert. This creates the question: should we be using a standing desk all the time? And the answer in actually no.

Because the most ideal solution is a combination of both – a standing and a sitting desk. Ideally, you should spend half of you work time standing up, and another half sitting down. But of course, it can take time to adapt to a standing desk, and also your ability to use a standing desk might depend on your personal capabilities. It might be uncomfortable in the beginning and may take some time to get used to it but it’s worth the hassle, since this combination can boost your performance and improve health, vitality levels and cognitive ability. In other words, next time you look for a desk, it might be a good idea to choose the one with adjustable height.

  1. Exercising and working at the same time?

You may have noticed a new trend online: desks with bikes or treadmills attached to them. It seems like a wild concept at the beginning and an easy subject to make jokes about, but in fact moving while working improves cognition. Both cycling desks and treadmill desks are equally effective, so when it comes down to choosing one – it depends on your personal preference. Doing such exercise routine while working has benefits for attention and cognitive control, however, it has some drawbacks – it worsens verbal memory, so not a good way to practice presentations, give speeches or hold meetings. However, you should consider this for times when you’re doing deep analytical work.

  1. The Cathedral effect

The cathedral effect is the name for the positive effect on creativity that high ceiling has on people. Lower ceiling is associated with thinking focused on details and specifics, there as higher ceiling is usually associated with abstract thinking and creativity. So, naturally, if you are in a small, narrow room, your brain most likely will swich to a more detailed thinking suitable for analytical type thinking, and if you’re in a wide area with a higher ceiling, most likely you will switch to a more creative mode.

It’s not realistic for your workplace to ask you to do a home renovation in order to suit your type of work, but then choosing a room at home (if you’re in a privileged position to have such options), be mindful of these factors.

And don’t forget simple things. Try to set up an environment in a way that it wouldn’t allow for too many distractions. Distractions besides creating opportunities for procrastination, also, puts extra workload on your brain because it takes mental energy to become focused again.

For your mental wellbeing, physical health and productivity it is a good idea for every 45 minutes of focused work to take a 5-minute break. But try not to spend it looking at your screen. Instead try looking at something in a distance, and ideally get some fresh air and a bit of exercise. A short walk around your apartment building or a house might be the perfect solution.

You probably have heard of these two popular opposing sayings – “A neat desk, they always say, is the sign of a well-ordered mind”, and “if a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, we can’t help wondering what an empty desk indicates”. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. The key thing is to make sure that your desk space is not only comfortable to you, but you can use it as an optimal manner, and you can find anything you need in an efficient way. The take home message from these quotes isn’t about the aesthetics of your desk ), but about awareness of your workspace and importance of it being organised in a way that works for you.

 

Listen to the full episode of Huberman Lab on workspace optimisation:

https://open.spotify.com/episode/4iv5HsKqxWQ0P3gkxQOtE4

Related scientific articles:

https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/18/21/11604

https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/18/21/11604