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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)
  • atm

    For years, my best work was done at a cozy bohemian coffee shop.  I would spend my ‘work from home’ day in creative and thoughtful bliss with bottomless coffee and french pastry.  

    Sadly, this special space closed last year and I have yet to replicate an environment that gives me the same type of productivity.  It’s a real issue!  There’s a balance of noise and calm, comfort and stimulation that can enable great work.  If anyone has suggestions for spots near the 41017 or 45202 zip codes, please respond! 

  • Dominic Rassool

    Sweet read. Liking this site; thanks for the motivation tips – Im on it!

  • Dominic Rassool

    Try to close you computer and create a daily, then weekly Gantt Chart. Follow it religiously. Be on time with all your objectives, and if you fall behind, update the Gantt Chart. Don’t share it on the internet, put it on your wall in the office. Associate your self-pride with that bad boy, and you are good to go, hombre!

  • Neil

    Thanks. I actually did create a gantt chart for my annual goals that I update monthly, but using it more frequently and keeping it visible may work better,

  • vaev

    Thanks for the enlightening post, I never thought of hanging fabric in my workspace before

  • 100-1%

    Same as atm I’m most productive working from a cafe rather than at my office or at home. There are pros and cons of all three locations. However, I need a lot of movement, energy and light music while I work. It also keeps me happy and encourages me to work harder just by watching others working on their own stuff or having a coffee discussion with others on matters whether or not it’s personal or work-related.

  • TheLetter_7

    Always light reading with substance…

  • Elleby

    The one thing I can always count on: if I clean my desk and computer desktop at the end of every day, I’ll be twice as productive the following morning.

  • Martin Cacky

    I am a UX designer/product manager and I found out couple weeks ago that in order to get from the day-to-day routine and to something creative I have to move from my desk. Either go to a meeting room or for lunch with someone and it works. Great to read it explained along with other tips. Thank you for the article.

  • Nora Reed

    Fantastic article and i must apply your thoughts on my daily routine of work.

  • PlaceboEffects

    Great article, but where the hell can I get scissors like that?

  • PlaceboEffects

    Never mind, found them. They’re Craft Design Technology scissors if anyone’s interested.

  • jkglei

    Yup, you can get them here: http://www.craftdesigntechnolo

  • Aleš Kroutil

    Well it’s nice to have a fresh start, but if you don’t in the action mood it’s hard to get things done even if you have nice clean desk.

  • 100-1%

    Setting the scene is certainly important to be geared up for daily work. On a higher level, it helps to know where your motivation comes from. There’s a free webinar next Wed (Nov 9) on this topic if anyone’s interested: http://learn.gotomeeting.com/f

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Excellent strategy! Thanks for sharing!

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Here are a few other ideas that have worked well for my clients:

    -Shut off the Internet or go to an Internet-free location during “focus” time.

    -Use a tool like this one for Firefox that allow you to decide what sites to block and when to block them: https://addons.mozilla.org/en-

    -See checking e-mail or Facebook as a “reward” that you get for efficiency such as if I finish this project before 4 p.m., I can answer e-mail with the remaining time.

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

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Glad to see that you’ve discovered this truth and that this article helped explain your experience.

    It’s amazing how standing up and slightly switching locations can allow our minds to switch between types of activity.

    All the best,
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • dissertation

    perfect article! i really liked it!

  • Anouk

    A daylight desk lamp. Having “outdoor” daylight while working keeps me sharp.

  • Anouk

    Oh yes, I forgot to mention my toys: I have Play-Doh and small magnetic balls to keep my hands busy while I need to think (this also prevents me from biting my nails when thinking hard).

  • karin

    I agree. Makes me feel guilty for all the effort I’ve put into creating an office at home.

  • Caleb Kinchlow

    I work in the TV industry as a editor/producer and one of the things I love to put up are action figures. There is something inspiring about looking at your Batman figure, it makes me feel like a kid again, when my imagination was endless. 

  • Caleb Kinchlow

    I work in the TV industry as a editor/producer and one of the things I love to put up are action figures. There is something inspiring about looking at your Batman figure, it makes me feel like a kid again, when my imagination was endless. 

  • Trade Shack

    Audacious and very good writeup article. Thanks

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