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Big Ideas

Setting the Scene for a Productive Day

Your desk setup and surrounding environment play a huge role in your ability to focus and produce great work. A look at how to "script" your space for creative success.


Once you’ve sunk into the warm embrace of your favorite chair after a long day, it can feel excruciatingly difficult to summon up the motivation to go out and exercise, grocery shop, or take in culture. It just seems like far too much hassle and effort to take action. So you stay put.

Yet, when you go directly from your workspace to the gym, the grocery store, or an art gallery, completing the corresponding activities becomes next to effortless. It’s hard not to do what you “want” to do when you’re in the right environment.In the same way, the places where you do — or attempt to do — creative projects can naturally draw you into a certain state. If you’ve developed a habit of feverishly responding to every email and/or social media message as soon as you sit down at your desk facing your computer, it’s hard to engage in any kind of higher-level strategic thinking from that position. Your brain has learned that when your body sits in that spot, you’re in “tactical” mode.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you may have an armchair tucked into a bay window overlooking a garden. Since that’s the place where you journal, sitting down in that chair triggers a reflective mode. With minimal conscious effort on your part, you exhale, lose track of your surroundings, and begin to explore all sorts of ideas and possibilities.

In both instances, you didn’t command your mind to function in a certain way; your subconscious simply responded to the patterns of behavior associated with placing yourself in a certain location.

When you leverage the fact that you have emotional and mental responses to specific places, you can dramatically increase your productivity. Each person’s optimal environment will look a bit different, but I’ve found that you need to consider these four elements as you set up your backdrop for success:

1. The Right Reminders.

Ideally, you can have different locations for each type of activity such as answering email while you’re on the train, doing your core responsibilities when you sit down at your desk, and strategic planning when you stop into the coffeeshop. These patterns of behavior matched with consistent location changes will prompt you to complete the specified activity with minimal mental effort.

But if you must complete all of your daily activities within a few square feet of space, you can trigger your mind to change activities with other small physical cues such as: standing up instead of perching on your chair at your elevated desk; moving your mouse from one side of the keyboard to the other; or sliding your chair over to a different portion of your work surface. You can choose how you associate places with activities, but to achieve the full benefit, aim for a consistent link between place and behavior.

When you leverage the fact that you have emotional and mental responses to specific places, you can dramatically increase your productivity.

2. The Right Tools.

Preferably, you can have all of the tools you need to complete a particular type of work laid out in a beautiful, organized fashion — and within arm’s reach. This makes you more efficient and reduces your resistance to doing a certain task because it requires getting up to fetch something. If you can’t leave everything out or you have a mobile working situation, carry a bag stocked with all of your essential tools, materials, electronics, and papers. Put it together once, and then as soon as you use up any supply, immediately replace it. This allows you to quickly and efficiently transition to a new location without feeling frustrated that you forgot a critical item.

3. The Right Distractions.

Some people experience creative nirvana in monastic-like silence while others hit the flow state to the pounding beat of their favorite song. Neither pattern of activity is right or wrong. The essential point is that you’re keenly aware of what types of distractions — or lack of distractions — make doing what you want to do easier. You can take notice of how you respond to these sorts of environmental factors and stage your day accordingly:

  • How do I function when I’m connected or disconnected to the Internet?
  • Does having certain devices turned on affect my mental state?
  • What kind of activities do I do best when I’m around people?
  • How does my mind respond when I’m completely alone?
  • Can background music or a movie help me focus?
  • Do days at home lead to higher or lower productivity?

4. The Right Surroundings.

For your most important creative work, having an environment that you relish spending time in makes starting on hard mental work much easier. If you have the ability to design your workspace, consider the type of lighting, colors, and materials that make you feel good about moving forward on creative projects. If a custom workspace isn’t feasible, try to find a spot that best suits your ideal — perhaps an atrium area in your building or a conference room with a great view. Or you can make small adaptations to your workspace such as:

  • Bringing in a small lamp with a soft white light bulb for a warmer glow
  • Keeping fresh flowers or plants in your area
  • Putting up some favorite pieces of art or inspiring quotes
  • Tacking up fabric on the wall
  • Requesting additional drawers so that your surface looks less cluttered

By setting the backdrop for your day, you can reduce friction in the flow of your life and create better work in less time.

Where Do You Stand?

Have you found that you can make your work easier by positioning yourself in a certain location?What changes to your physical environment have lead to the greatest creative breakthroughs?

More Posts by Elizabeth Grace Saunders

Elizabeth Grace Saunders is the founder of Real Life E Time Coaching & Training and author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment: How to Achieve More Success With Less Stress and How to Invest Your Time Like Money. Find out how you can accomplish more with peace and confidence at http://www.RealLifeE.com.

Comments (95)
  • Neal Schreier

    Where can one get those scissors?

  • Sharonthoms

    I agree that different environments for sitting down and doing work in definitely trigger different feelings about the work at hand.  Even by having all the supplies needed to complete a task in a different area than normal I still never feel as comfortable or as organized to handle the job as I do in my own surrounds.  I guess it’s sort of like never being as comfortable as when you sleep away from your own home even though it’s comfortable and you have everything you might need.   

  • essay help

    This is really nice post cool!))

  • Davidgravelives

    I have a few objects I call my Artifacts.  One is a Silver skull, the other an Iron rod Finial that somehow broke off of a fence as I touched it, and then there’s this rock from Israel.  I usually do great work when I have them around.

  • AVeidt

    I usually stick notes, images and small objects around my desk, and try to change them every couple of months. It helps me to avoid the cubicle claustrophobia and often stimulates conversations with colleagues.
    Whenever I do not use my second monitor I use it as a digital frame for a nice picture I have taken during my holidays.
    I also make sure to keep some food around (or a variety of teas etc.) so that my desk sometimes turns into a social place where people drop by.

  • M D

    This is so true! If I take my laptop to the gym (my gym has a bunch of little cafe tables in one of the hallways) I get so much writing done!   There is no internet there and I just put on my headphones and work.

    The problems with this are that I need to pack two meals to take with me (breakfast and lunch) because if I have to leave to get food I won’t come back. Also the AC is on very high at the gym so I need to take an extra sweatshirt with me.  Still, it’s a great way to get a lot done.  I need to do it more often!

  • willie mullin

    A person with a desk as as neat and tidy as shown has a serious psychological problem in my books, or else they are ”Non-Producutive”

  • Rob Rash

    I find that a change of scenery and the elimination of distractions such as, turning off iPhone notifications, twitter, and email can really help productivity.

    Plus, I also have a playlist set up called ‘Writing Music’ that is more instrumental than rock/pop etc that really helps the creative process.

  • sweetlazybones

    I love these ideas!  It’s like, why fight the day when you can work with it? 

    These are exactly the types of things we should be teaching kids in school!!

    Although it’s soooo comfy, perhaps working from bed isn’t the most productive strategy…I’mma have to rethink that one… 

  • Black Ops Artist

    Love this post! Thank you.

  • Robert Anthony

    Good points. I find my creativity flows best when I I’ve got some energetic dance music playing.

  • A M

    There is a coffee shop nearby that has 3 walls of floor to ceiling windows. It gives me the space to think and enough background noise to help me focus.

  • Mena Aboud

    I used  to work at home in my room very limited area, i will try your ideas very quickly,
    I’m not used or didn’t try to work out my room, i usually do all the work there..

    Thankyou for this great article, been facing a few difficults about where i sit, will try your suggestions..

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Excellent point!

    A huge benefit of creating habit and routine with how, when and where we do our work is that we feel comfortable that all is in order in our external surroundings so that we can get lost in our interior world.

    In a way, these rituals pacify our primal instincts for self preservation so we can ascend to higher levels of intellectual creativity.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • crking

    Great article! The right physical environment and atmosphere definitely makes all the difference. For me this means enough desk space to comfortably accomodate laptop and displays as well surface for laying out papers out, sketching etc. Careful, though—too much desk space can quickly backfire and become home to clutter! Also, ample whiteboard space is a must for brainstorming.

    When it comes to productivity, I’ve been playing around with using timed 90 min work intervals followed by 30 min breaks. So far this seems to allow for more intense focus and getting more done than working in 2-4 hour chunks. However, the trick is during a work interval, not letting myself get sucked into the email and social media vortex. I’ve started setting separate designated times for those things. Keeps me sane 😉

    FInally, music. I decided to put the Mozart effect to the test. This is a new discovery for me. Some people don’t notice any difference but I feel relaxed yet alert allowing me to concentrate more. Side benefit: I now like classical music. Not something I could claim in the past.

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Awesome tips! These are excellent ways to keep your surroundings fresh, inspiring and lively.

    Thanks for sharing and drink a cup of tea for me!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    That’s excellent that this article helped you be more aware of the impact of your surroundings on your work.

    Here are a few tips on how to use this insight to your advantage:
    -Schedule in regular times on your calendar to go to the gym to write. When you schedule in the time, also put a task reminder in your calendar to pack two meals and bring a sweatshirt.

    -And/or plan to go to the gym every time you need to do a serious amount of writing. This will strengthen your mental and emotional connection between writing and being in that space and dramatically improve your productivity. (Make a note to pack the two meals and the sweatshirt before!)

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders
    http://www.ScheduleMakeover.com

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Glad you’ve found “staging” techniques that work for you.

    Given that you’re a musician, maybe you should market a “Writing Music” album. There may be a market for it!

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Sounds divine!

    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    I’m glad you enjoyed it. Here are some ideas for alternative spaces where you can breathe:
    -Coffee shops
    -Libraries
    -Open atrium spaces in malls
    -Parks

    To your peace and productivity!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • BetBooth

    Great article. Do you have any scientific studies on this from a ‘neuro’ perspective? case studies? material links that gave you the idea to write the article? or is this purely from personal/client experience?

    In any case, Intuitively, I can feel it’s valid. 

  • Rob Rash

    Appreciate your thoughts Elizabeth… I just might have to start creating some “Writing Music’… 😉

  • Rodolfowm

    thank you for ideas , very good …

  • Phil Drolet

    I’ve come to realize that even though being location-independent is wonderful, it’s important to switch it up and not always work from home. Too much time in our own house just can’t be good.

    When I get to that point I just hop on my bike, roll down to the university campus and work from this awesome spot: 

    . Boom! 🙂

  • Ulrika Hedlund

    Thank you for a great article. I’m definitely going
    to go buy some plants for my office now to increase my productivity. – Ulrika Hedlund

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