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Find an office away from the office


If you find it difficult to focus on certain tasks in your current environment, try changing your environment. It is possible that simply being in your office, where you may have built a habit of checking email, staring out the window or twisting paper clips, prompts these distracting habits to recur. That’s why it’s easier to start a new behavior in a new location, as reported in the March/April, 2012 issue of Scientific American Mind.

Two things experienced together will become associated with each other in our mind.  This is known as the law of contiguity, and is used to advantage when memorizing something.  Things or events that occur close to each other in space or time tend to get linked together in the mind.  If you think of a cup, you may think of a saucer; if you hear a song, you may recall events that happened when that song was popular. When you see again the house that you were born and raised in, you are flooded with memories of things that happened at that time. When you see the ocean, it may remind you of a time you almost drowned there. And so on. This can work against you as well. Your office may become associated with procrastination or anxiety or daydreaming just as your bed becomes associated with sleep.

More and more people seem to be using their local coffee shop as an effective place to work. Although loud noises are distracting, the steady hum of a busy coffee shop with its mixture of espresso machines running and customer conversation seems to provide just the right level of “white noise” to stimulate creativity and concentration. (Researchers also found that adding white noise to a classroom can be as effective as drugs and eating learning among ADHD pupils.)

Entrepreneurs are even beginning to capitalize on this trend by turning coffee shops or restaurants into co-working spaces. Susan Johnston, writing for, mentioned that CoworkCafé and other entrepreneurial companies are renting out after-hours space in coffee shops, complete with desks, lockers, Wi-Fi and food vouchers.

The majority of my articles, segments of my books, and countless newsletters were written in coffee shops. I find I am alone while not alone, with complete anonymity, yet able to feed off the energy of others. It’s an excellent time to silence your iPhone or other devices and work undisturbed. Wi-Fi is available, lighting is normally good, and any inefficient work habits seem to remain back at the office. If you need to make the odd call, your voice is muted by the ambient noises. And as an added bonus, a cup of coffee stimulates creativity as well. I write longhand since it further increases my concentration and allows me to edit as I go along. Using voice activated software, I can quickly dictate the results to my laptop when I get back to my home office.

If you can’t make it to a coffee shop, you can always go to and bring the sounds of a coffee shop to your computer while you work. Back in 2013, Coffitivity was launched when its founder realized the benefits of re-creating the ambient sounds of a coffee shop to boost people’s creativity and help them increase their performance.

It seems that a moderate noise level is the sweet spot for creativity. It doesn’t distract us as loud noises tend to do. It doesn’t seem to matter whether it is in the form of ocean waves, chatter or music. In the case of music, there is a link between music and executive function. Sylvain Marino, a scientist with the Rotman Research Institute, was able to produce a 14-point increase in IQ in preschoolers by exposing them to a computerized music program for 20 days. If you like to work with music in the background, choose a genre such as classical or blues that works best for you. You can do this by having music from playing on your computer in the background as you work.

Ravi Mehta, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois, believes that a blue background screen on your computer also improves performance when working on a creative tasks, while a red background is better with more detail-oriented tasks.

What is most important, in my opinion, is having a “high performance area” where you work your best, regardless of where that might be. But if you are restricted to do all your work in a corporate or home office, there is much more you can do to aid your performance, which I will discuss in the next blog article.

Next blog article: Boosting performance in your home office.

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How your work environment can impact productivity.

Office environment

Your environment definitely affects your actions, and in turn, your productivity. This holds true in situations other than work. For example, if you use a larger spoon or a larger plate, you will eat more, hospital patients with a window view need less medication and heal faster, and children who live closer to a fast food outlet are usually more obese.

Consider the impact of nature, whether in the form of green space, gardens or parks, on the health and well-being of individuals. According to the June, 2016 issue of Scientific American Mind, “exposure to natural settings has been linked with a vast array of human benefits, from reduced rates of depression to increased immune functioning.”

Recent studies have found that urban green spaces improve cognitive development in children, and those close to park land had better memory development, attentiveness and creativity.

As for productivity in an office environment, potted plants, white noise, music, natural lighting, air circulation, physical organization, windows facing the outside world, the ability to feed off the energy of others, and even a cheerful office decor with scenic pictures on the walls can increase productivity as well as improve mood and personal well-being.

Take plants for example. Based on recent research, it might appear as though your ideal office environment would be a forest with plenty of vegetation surrounding your desk and a trout stream gurgling its way past you. Unfortunately that discounts the blackflies, mosquitoes, gusty winds, darkened sky, and the noise of trains, tractors and thunderstorms in the distance.

Convert your house plants to office plants.

But in choosing our office and decor, we should not overlook the possibility of merging more with nature. The more we gravitate toward the cities and hole up in our offices, the more we withdraw from nature and its largely unrecognized or unappreciated benefits. Studies have shown that the presence of potted plants, for example, improves productivity, creativity, performance and learning ability. In the case of schools, the presence of plants improved scores in mathematics spelling and science between 10% and 14%.

Researchers have also found that plants act as vacuum cleaners removing pollution from the air. Exposure to indoor and outdoor pollutants in both home and offices has been linked to anxiety, depression, irritability, fatigue and short and long-term cognitive decline among other afflictions.

One study involved new computers, which had been shown to give off chemicals into the air. When a batch of new computers were hidden behind a divider, cognitive testing showed it reduced performance and increased errors by those workers closest to the hidden computers.

Plants not only give off oxygen, they are able to absorb environmental chemicals and transport them to the soil, rendering them less harmful. NASA used plants to keep their astronauts healthy while working in enclosed places constructed of synthetic materials. Potted plants have reduced indoor pollutants by at least 75%.

A few years ago I moved my home condo office from a windowless room that used to be a dining room to the solarium where I am surrounded by two walls of glass and access to the balcony. I bought plants for the balcony, complete with window boxes. I have a table and chairs there where I do a lot of my writing and have a view of treetops from my ninth floor condo.

It is not my highest performance area. That’s a local coffee shop, which I referred to in my blog a couple of weeks ago – “Are you going to work or working on the go?” It’s important to add a little variety to your workplace. It gets you moving, which in another key to productivity in the office. I will discuss this in my next blog article.

Next blog article: Motion sickness beats death by sitting.


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Don’t work in isolation


What most workers need are more quality interruptions

The trend towards cocooning – squirreling yourself away in a home office with a laptop to get your work done – can have a negative impact on both your effectiveness and your health. You need the energy, experience and input from others in order to perform at an optimum level. The Internet and social media will not compensate for a lack of personal interaction with others.

30 years ago most managers had private offices with floor-to-ceiling walls and a closed door to protect them from needless interruptions and socializing. But without the benefit of even the Internet, and only intermittent interaction with others, their output was limited to what they could accomplish with their own limited experience and learning.

Later, the open-office concept with cubicles as offices allowed more input from the outside world, and although this included needless interruptions, even those incidents added the change of pace so necessary for optimum brain performance and creativity. The real advantage was a healthy and beneficial relationship with other people who had different experiences, viewpoints and ideas.

Several years ago one company eliminated even the cubicles and replaced them with tables and unassigned seating so the more mobile workers could come and go according to their flexible working hours. Although the main reason was to save money on office space and equipment, email traffic decreased by more than 50%, and decision-making accelerated by about 25%. This was due to the fact the staff were able to meet informally instead of shooting emails back and forth. Another company claims that 48% of their work was being accomplished in off hours and off premise.

It seems that for the past 50 years or more we have been trying to avoid the people-interruptions and isolate ourselves for maximum productivity. Yet many of these interruptions were actually opportunities in disguise that afforded a chance to form social relationships.

Our brains are designed to associate unrelated information and ideas to form novel and creative solutions to difficult problems. With limited input from others, we have limited creativity. We would not have been created with mirror neurons, which allow us to emphasize and communicate more effectively with others if we were meant to spend most of our day in isolation. And as Matthew Lieberman claims in his 2013 book, Social: Why our brains are wired to connect, research has shown that our brains are wired to connect with other people.

Hard work usually results in maximum value only when it is enhanced by social connections with others. An article in the September, October, 2012 issue of Psychology Today claimed that “the strength of your friendship is as critical for your health as the lifestyle choices you make.” The article went on to describe data collected by Julianne Holt-Lumsted of Brigham Young University that showed among other things that “people with active social lives were 50% less likely to die of any cause than a non-social counterparts.” Many sources indicate that there is a positive correlation between the extent of your social relationships and your ability to fight infection. So there is little doubt that quality relationships go hand-in-hand with health.

If you do have to work in isolation, be sure to keep in contact with associates, get out to a coffee shop periodically during break periods, keep in touch with others on social media, and build quality relationships away from the job.