How your work environment helps (and hurts) your productivity

While most productivity tips are concerned with how you work, we often overlook where we’re working. However, our work environment is the “invisible hand” that dictates how much we can get done in a day.

I say “invisible” because it’s the unseen or ignored elements of our environment that effect our productivity.

What sort of lighting is best? How about temperature and air quality? Should we listen to music or work in silence? What about office pets?

Luckily, there’s been a lot of research put into finding the optimal work environment. So, whether you spend your days at an office, co-working space or coffee shop here are some simple fixes.

Before we dive in… Whether you work from home or in a noisy, crowded office, chances are you’re fighting distraction on a daily basis. Learn how to fight back with our free Guide To Finding Focus and Overcoming Distractions.

Get rid of the clutter (both physical and digital)

work environment clutter

If you can’t see the surface of your desk (or your computer desktop) it’s most likely harming your productivity.

According to neuroscientists at Princeton University, physical clutter in your surroundings competes for your attention. This results in decreased performance and increased stress. However, it’s not as simple as just cleaning up and moving on.

We become overly attached to our “things.” So much so that the areas of your brain associated with physical pain light up when faced with giving something up. Mentally speaking, throwing out an item we’re even remotely attached to feels about the same as a paper cut.

This doesn’t mean we’re doomed to disorder, however. To clean up your workspace in a healthy and safe way start with these suggestions:

  • Apply constraints to what you accumulate: Parkinson’s Law says we fill the time we have available to us. Whether Twitter followers, open tabs, or notebooks, setting hard limitations is the best way to stop accumulating more.
  • Become a Digital Minimalist: Deep Work author Cal Newport suggests clearing out any digital tool that doesn’t bring you high value. You can either do this by subtracting (deleting one tool at a time) or adding (deleting everything and only adding back valuable ones).
  • Conduct a monthly review of your space: Set time aside to clean, sort, and discard your physical and digital clutter. You can even do this daily, cleaning up your desktop each evening so you get a fresh start tomorrow.

Design your work environment for willpower

work environment lazy

Our brains are lazy, and the choices we make often come down to a matter of convenience. This means that whatever is nearest to you—your phone, social media, TV—will be harder to block out.

Stanford psychologist BJ Fogg calls this “designing for laziness.” You’ll be less likely to do things you don’t want to if you make them less convenient. This could be as simple as putting your TV remote in a closet when you’re working, leaving your phone in your car, or blocking distracting websites.

The opposite approach also works. If we fill our work environment with more productive options, we’ll be more likely to do those. Best-selling author Gretchen Rubin calls this “convenience flipping

“We should pay close attention to the convenience of any activity we want to make into a habit. Putting a wastebasket next to our front door made mail sorting slightly more convenient, and I stopped procrastinating with this chore.”

One great example is author and illustrator Austin Kleon, who splits his work environment into two distinct spaces:

  1. A “digital desk” with his computer and other digital tools
  2. An “analog desk” with art supplies, newspapers, and books

Splitting his desks apart means that his mind is never pulled in another direction. What needs to be done is right in front of him.

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Music vs. silence in your work environment

work environment sound

Unless you’re single and work from home, you most likely spend your day around other people. That can mean ringing phones, random conversations, and general noise everywhere. Which is bad news.

According to a series of recent studies, unwanted noise and a lack of sound privacy—a lack of control over what you hear and who hears you—are the two biggest issues people have with their work environment.

The solution for most of us is to throw on headphones and drown out the sounds with music. However, music can be just as distracting depending on the task we’re doing.

So, what’s the best aural option for your ideal work environment?

First, let’s talk about volume. Silence has been shown to be the best option for working through hard problems. However, if there’s no way to block out what’s around you, the next best option is to find the right level of background noise.

When researchers tested our ability to work at different levels of background noise—50, 70, and 85-decibels they discovered that the 70-decibel group were the clear winners. 70-decibels is about the volume of a not-too-busy coffee shop.

If you’d rather block out distracting sounds with music, you also need to be careful about what you listen to. According to Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist and author of This Is Your Brain on Music:

  • The more engaging the music is, the worse it is for concentration. Skip the Top 40 or your favorite artists and opt for Classical or “Chill” soundtracks. Or try out a service like focus@will that provides playlists optimized for work.
  • Lyric-free music is less distracting. “Most people can’t pay attention to very much at once,” says Levitin. And trying to listen to lyrics while doing work is the aural version of multitasking.
  • If you’re doing some repeatable task, listen to your favorite tunes. Assembly line workers were actually more productive when listening to upbeat music.

Silence is the best option for an optimal work environment. But noise doesn’t have to be a deal breaker. Either find a place with a suitable level of volume, or pick the right music for the right task.

Should pets be in the office?

work environment pets

It’s easy to write off pet-friendly offices as just another startup trend. But with recent reports saying up to 20% of American companies have adopted pet-friendly policies, we’re clearly not banning out furry friends from the workplace anytime soon. But is this a good thing?

Of course there’s our psychological and emotional connection to our pets. But, beyond the personal connection, do animals make our work environment more or less productive? The argument is two-sided.

The good:

  • Pets are a social catalyst: A 2010 study from Central Michigan University showed how having dogs in the workplace can lead to more trust between colleagues.
  • Pets can reduce our stress: A 2012 Virginia Commonwealth University study demonstrated how employees who bring their dogs to work produce lower levels of cortisol (the hormone released when we’re stressed)
  • Owning a pet can decrease blood pressure and cholesterol: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the increased opportunities for exercise and socialization of pet ownership can be incredibly beneficial to our health

The bad:

In the end, it seems that having pets in your work environment comes down to personal preference and the people you work with. When the animal is a welcome addition, the positive benefits clearly outweigh the negative.

Bring a bit of nature into your work environment

work environment nature

No one wants to work in a windowless cave. And adding more natural light is one of the quickest ways to improve your work environment. Studies show that schools with more natural light produce children who score better on tests. While researchers recently discovered that workers with exposure to natural light sleep 46 minutes more per night.

Along with light, fresh air can also have a direct impact. When US researchers studied the connection between fresh air and productivity at a major Chinese online travel agency, they found exposure to poor levels of air quality, workers’ productivity levels dropped by as much as 5–6%.

The final natural element you’ll want to be sure to include is nature itself. Surrounding yourself with plants (or even pictures of plants) has been shown to help alleviate mental fatigue.

To be more productive, try to bring all three into your work environment: Light, fresh air, and nature. This could be as simple as making sure you’re close to a window or have access to a garden or yard to take a quick break in throughout the day.

Lastly, if your work environment isn’t working, switch it up

We don’t all have the luxury of customizing our workspace. So, if you’re feeling especially stuck it might be time to move somewhere else for a bit.

Psychologist David Neal describes how when we work in the same place for too long we “outsource our control” to the location:

“People, when they perform a behavior a lot—especially in the same environment, same sort of physical setting—outsource the control of the behavior to the environment.”

This means that to break bad habits or get out of a rut, we need to take back control.

Studies show that it’s easier to change your behavior when you change your environment. Being in a new location also helps us rethink complex problems.

Just think of the example of Jonas Salk, a researcher who spent years looking for a vaccine for polio. It was only after leaving his office for a holiday in central Italy that the answer came to him:

“The spirituality of the architecture there was so inspiring that I was able to do intuitive thinking far beyond any I had done in the past. Under the influence of that historic place I intuitively designed the research that I felt would result in a vaccine for polio.”

If your work environment is bringing you down, get out. A new location can often make the problems that once looked like a stone wall turn into an open window.


There’s a powerful connection between where we work and how we work. But few of us take the time to really optimize our environment for productivity. However, once you understand the effects your work environment have on your productivity, you can make it work for you, not against you.

Photos by Norbert Levajsicsfreddie marriageCarl HeyerdahlSiddharth BhograJay Wennington, and Kevin Wong

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

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