"Shoot, if I got to work in an airy, bright, flower-filled space like that, I'd have no problem focusing!" That's what I thought to myself when I came across that photo above.
Unfortunately, that's not a photo of my real work space. My real life work environments over the past few years have looked more like this:
A room with a plastic folding table that serves as a desk, and every corner stacked with tattered cardboard boxes.
No hot water, no toilet seat covers, no light in the stairwell.
No windows, no natural light.
When I worked in the supply-closet-turned-office, I felt cast away and isolated, like I wasn’t important to the company.
When I worked in an office with no hot water, I again felt unimportant, as if saving on the energy bill was more important than my basic needs. Side note: I was working with kids at the time, and we all know how germ-infested the kiddos can be. But without any hot water to wash our hands—is it any wonder that my colleagues and I kept passing around colds?
And when I worked in that office with no windows… not only did time end up moving at a painful snail’s pace, but I had the HARDEST time concentrating! Everything in my brain just eventually turned into a blank, meandering expanse—quite similar to that plain white wall in front of me. And to the left and the right of me.
I’ve come to accept this truth about myself: my mood and concentration are easily influenced by the environment I’m in. This is the case for most people, at least to a certain degree.
We’re human beings, living in a social world, and we have all these receptors in our skin and eyes and tongue—even within the tissues of our internal organs—that give us information about the world. Our bodies are permeable: there's input from our surroundings and experiences, and there's output as we respond to them. It’s for survival. It's biology trying to keep us safe and well. So let's try our best to heed what our senses are trying to tell us.
Through lots of trial and error, all through high school and college and graduate school and my professional life, I’ve taken note of the environments that help me study or work the best.
I’d ask myself:
Where are you the most focused? Where can you sustain your attention the longest? When and where do you get the most done? Where are you the most distracted?
Oftentimes, I didn't have immediate, conscious answers to these questions. I had to start observing myself with nonjudgmental curiosity, noticing my patterns and routines: where do I gravitate? What places do I steer clear from, even when my friends or coworkers attempt to entice me there?
I’d habitually go to this one café close to my apartment whenever I had to cram for finals. It was big enough to accommodate a constant buzz of people, but small enough to contain the noise. They constantly played instrumental French music over the speakers, which was nicely accompanied by the intermittent whir of the espresso machine and the clinking of plates. When I got tired, I’d get up and take a short walk to the water dispenser—or order another cup of coffee. (Black: no cream, no sugar.) When I got hungry, they had a simple menu I could choose from. (Everything bagel, toasted, with honey almond cream cheese.)The temperature in the cafe was always just right: not too cold (like Starbucks), and not too hot (like most mom-and-pop cafes I’ve been to). The chairs were padded, so I could sit for hours and my butt wouldn’t get sore. And sit there for hours, I sure did. Like, often for five hours straight. Easily.
You see, it didn't matter what kind of work I was doing. I could be doing boring documentation or mind-numbing annotation of an eight-pound textbook. As long as I was in that cafe, I could get that shit done.
That was over ten years ago, when I lived in Irvine.
Every time I moved, I found a different place to work or study. In LA, it was that café next to the ocean that served granola in a mason jar. In San Diego, it was the airy library where I’d hunker down at a desk right next to one of the large picture windows with my CD player, blasting Radiohead through my ear buds.
Now, it’s a spacious café that’s housed in the cavernous loins of a local church, with natural light spilling through its floor-to-ceiling windows. Soft acoustic music descends from hidden speakers embedded in the vaulted ceiling. My tush is caressed softly by the nap-inducing couches. Energetic souls sit around me: some talking animatedly to each other in happy whispers, some tapping away on their laptops.
I now know that I have certain non-negotiables when it comes to choosing an ideal work environment. I must have access to ambient noise, because complete silence and audible conversations make my mind wander. I must have natural light or be able to see outside, otherwise I will have an irrepressible desire to LEAVE. I must have a relatively comfortable place to sit where my butt won’t fall asleep and my back won't ache. If I'm doing creative work, I prefer a space that's clean and aesthetically-pleasing enough to signal safety and security to my senses. And I need to be working alongside other people—but people who know how to leave me alone!
If I have all these things, I know I’ll be super productive. I’ll feel safe, motivated, and focused.
If I don't have these things... well, I could probably still get the job done, but it would take much longer and it would be much less enjoyable.
Now, it’s your turn.
(But before we go any further, I'm encouraging you to ask yourself the following questions from a place of genuine respect for your own body's biological, sensory, and emotional needs... NOT from that place of entitlement that tells you that your employer "owes" you catered organic-vegan-gluten-free meals two times a day, erryday.)
Think. Notice. In order to be your happiest, most focused self while working…
1. What do you need to hear? Birds, music, complete silence?
2. What do you need to see? Bright colors, nature, people, artwork, a super organized desk?
3. What kind of people do you need to be surrounded by, if any? The kind who will strike up a conversation with you without warning, who know how to get to the point, who tread softly, people who leave you the fuck alone, people who schedule a meeting with you before bugging you?
4. What kind of light do you need? Dim, natural, fluorescent?
5. How much space do you need? A cozy cubbyhole, shared office, private office, high ceilings, open office space, cubicle?
6. How does your body need to feel? Do you need a standing desk, is your desk and chair ergonomically aligned to your body, can you get up to stretch constantly without people looking at you funny, do you need to be allowed to snack throughout the day?
And finally: are you getting all these things at your current workplace?
There’s a reason why Pinterest has a bajillion pins related to office décor. It’s not vapid, frivolous, or vain to want a comfortable workplace. It’s strategic, because a workplace environment that’s well-matched to your sensory, social and physical needs will ultimately make you a more productive worker.
Can’t get more practical than that.
…but, just for kicks, I’ll just leave this pic right here, because I know this is where we all really want to work. ;)