For actual work — such as writing for my blog or newsletter — I use the desk in my room. For design/coding, I prefer to sit in the bed. The kitchen table is reserved for planning, armed with a pen and paper. I normally read while using the toilet (hey, better than Facebook!). For high-level thinking or refreshing my brain, I go for a walk outside or sit on the balcony.
This was not on purpose. My brain started associating different environments with different types of work. That’s why when I sit at the toilet, I read. Sometimes I go there and just sit down and read (without having to — you know — go). My brain knows what do it, and so it does it automatically. It’s a habit.
There’s actual neuroscience behind this. In “How to Have a Good Day”, Caroline Webb writes:
“If you once spent an afternoon cranking out great work while settled into that window seat [at home], your ‘window seat’ neural network might be connected with the one representing ‘extremely productive and focused behavior.’”
Once the connection is made and reinforced over time, the brain creates a well-worn neural pathway: “If I sit down in X location, then I do Y.”
So I’ve been thinking (in the balcony) how to design different productivity spaces for different types of mindset and work.
In this post, I’ll cover how to find your different work mindsets, how to design productivity spaces, how to choose the actual places, and how to iterate on design to keep improving your work experience and productivity.
Step 1: Know Your Working Mindsets
Before deciding where to work, you need to be aware of the types of work you do in your daily life.
This is different for each person, so it’s important you do the following exercise: grab a pen and paper and start listing all the tasks you perform every day. Write down absolutely everything: from getting coffee to reading email, from meetings to status reports, from big projects to small ones.
All your tasks fall into one of these 6 types of work:
- Deep Work: critical work that has a direct impact on your goals, such as work on a big project or closing sales deals
- Collaboration: work that must be performed by multiple members, such as standup meetings or working on the development of a new feature
- Learning: acquisition of new skills either by trial and experimentation, reading books or taking online courses
- Strategy: thinking and planning, either solo or in a team, such as redesigning the user onboarding experience or planning next quarter’s OKRs
- Shallow Work: tasks of the modern workplace that can be performed while being distracted, like email and meetings
- Relaxation: taking strategic breaks from work to recharge and improve willpower
Go through each task from your list and insert them into one of these categories. Once you’re ready, move on to the next step: design productivity spaces by finding the essential features that they must have.
Step 2: Design Productivity Spaces
It’s time to consider the key attributes for productivity spaces. These will differ according to the type of work you need to do.
For tasks requiring a lot of focus and attention, you’ll want to design your space to make it easier to enter a state of flow. This could mean keeping noise and distraction to a minimum (or using noise-canceling headphones) while sitting in a comfortable chair.
Take a few minutes writing down the environment must-haves for each type of work. The more specific you get, the better. Use props — such as “pen and paper”, “listening to techno without lyrics” or “double monitors” as you see fit.
As a guideline, here are my key attributes per type:
- Deep Work: silent and quiet, comfortable, without clutter (empty desk), single monitor
- Collaboration: private meeting room with a large table, room to circulate and a whiteboard
- Learning: quiet space that I can use several times a day to read on my Kindle; watch documentaries and courses on TV sitting in a comfortable chair
- Strategy: lots of light, a pen and a piece of paper and the occasional look at metrics if needed; write everything by hand and transcribe the essential parts to digital form
- Shallow Work: while doing other activities, such as cooking, eating a snack or commuting; do mostly on the phone
- Relaxation: daily life sounds are encouraged, take in the sun; just sit in a chair or take a walk outside if it’s a nice day
Once you know exactly what are each productivity spaces must-haves, it’s time to select the areas in your office to perform each different type of tasks. These will be your productivity spaces.
Step 3: Choose the Productivity Spaces
Now it’s time to chose your productivity spaces. Identify the best areas in your office for each type of work according to your must-haves.
For each location, do only one type of work. Performing the same type of activities in the same location trains your brain to switch to a different working mode immediately.
Expand your thinking of what constitute “workspaces”. Here are some ideas: your desk, co-workers desk, private room, by the window, couch, cafe, co-working space, outside, lobby, break room, commuting, kitchen, eating areas, park, library.
Here’s how Alexander Bell used different environments for different types of work:
“In the little office near the laboratory he occupied his mind with problems connected with the experiments; in his study in the house, he thought and worked over his theories of [flight]; while the Mabel of Beinn Bhreagh (houseboat) was the place to think of genetics and heredity.”
Here are my productivity spaces for each work mindset:
- Deep Work: the desk in my room
- Collaboration: co-working private room
- Learning: toilet or TV in my room
- Strategy: kitchen table
- Shallow Work: while doing other activities (no defined location)
- Relaxation: sit on the balcony or walk outside
If you work in an office, you might have to get creative about finding a space for each type of work. At Freelancer.com, I did most of my creative work on a couch.
If you work at home, different rooms in the house or places to sit — desk chair, couch, bed, kitchen, toilet — will do the trick.
Step 4: Iterate to Perfect
Much like iteration is used in software to upgrade and evolve a product, you must do the same with your productivity spaces.
Being data-driven is not reserved for tech companies and products. Test little changes to your environment and analyze how it affects your productivity.
Here are some of the things I changed to test how it affected my productivity:
- Move the table to a different space in the room
- Work on the other side of the table
- Add a plant to the end of the table
- Writing with music vs in complete silence
- Single monitor vs dual setup
- Work standing up vs sitting in a chair
- Work on the floor
Sometimes it might be hard to measure productivity, so go with your gut-feeling and happiness level if you must.
By using location-based prompts and creating productivity spaces for certain types of work, you may find it easier to buckle down to your tasks. The switch in the environment triggers your brain to shift work mindsets and help you be more productive.
Experiment and see if it works for you.