Friday, July 2, 2010

10 Ways to Relaxify Your Workspace

Some people claim they work well in a high-stress environment.  I’m not one of them.  My productivity is highest when I’m fully relaxed.  With inspiring goals I still feel a positive urging to get my work done, but the pressure to work stems from passion instead of fear.
Last year I made changes to my home office to better relaxify it (I know relaxify isn’t a word, but it should be).  I enjoy being in my workspace, and I can work productively for many hours without feeling like I’ve lost my humanity.
When considering changes to your workspace, here’s rule #1:  If it feels right to you, it is right.  That rule is primary; my specific suggestions are secondary.
With that in mind, here are 10 suggestions for creating a more relaxing workspace:
1. Make your workspace look attractive to you.
When I walk through a typical corporate office building, I see the most dreadfully sterile workspaces.  It doesn’t look remotely human.  Do people get hired to work there… or assimilated?
Must a professional workspace be a sterile sea of beige and gray?  Remember that where you work, you also live.  Given the amount of time you’ll be living in your workspace over the course of your lifetime, it makes sense to add some visual appeal.
The first time you see your workspace each day, you should feel good about it.  It should be attractive to you.  Really it should be your favorite place in the entire building, house, or campus.  If you’re in your workspace right now, please step outside for a minute, and then re-enter it while paying close attention to your sense impressions.  What’s the very first emotional response you can detect?  Do you feel stressed?  Overwhelmed?  Bored?  Apathetic?  Focused?  Peaceful?  Is this an emotion you experience often while working?
Now choose the emotion you want to feel, and experiment with different visual elements to see how they alter your feelings.  Try new furniture, photos, posters, mirrors, flowers, knick knacks, toys, statues, rugs, artwork, crystals, etc.  If you have the necessary control, you can also tweak the lighting in your workspace to create the right type of mood.  I know a programmer who works in a completely dark room with no windows, he loves it.
2. Clear out the clutter.
One look at a cluttered workspace, and you get a sense that the person working there is stressed, overwhelmed, and disorganized.  Years ago I read about a study that concluded most managers will not promote a person with a messy workspace into a position of responsibility.  It’s assumed that if you can’t organize your physical environment, you’re probably incompetent to a certain degree and can’t be trusted.  And if layoffs happen, you can imagine who the most obvious targets are.
But even more critical is the effect a cluttered workspace has on your focus.  It’s difficult to feel centered when you’re surrounded by unfinished tasks that constantly remind you of what you haven’t done yet.  Ideally the only paper items on your desk should be directly related to the current task at hand.  Store everything else in drawers, shelves, or cabinets.  Many people notice a dramatic improvement to their productivity when they try this.
For how-to tips on organizing your workspace, be sure to read Getting Organized.
3. Add plants.
Plants are a wonderful way to add life to a lifeless workspace.  Use only living, oxygen-generating plants, not lifeless fake ones.  Water them as needed to keep them healthy.  Over time you’ll find that your plants begin to resonate with you and become a reflection of you.  Dying plants = dead career.  Fake plants = appears successful but empty on the inside.  Healthy plants = healthy career.  Lots of plants = abundance.  Bring yourself back to nature by adding some plants to your workspace, and you’ll find yourself enjoying the environment much more.
I currently have three plants in my office, and I’ll soon add more.  Two are lucky bamboo plants.  Are they really lucky?  Since I bought them last year, the income I receive from this site has increased by about a factor of 100, so who knows?  I added a small mirror behind them as well, which doubles their visual presence without taking up extra space.  Maybe that doubles my luck too.  :)
4. Make it smell good.
Australian dentist Paddy Lund has his staff bake fresh muffins for his patients daily.  Think about how a dentist’s office usually smells.  Now imagine walking into one that smells of blueberry muffins.  Along with other changes, this reportedly helped Lund increase his income by a factor of 10.  I’m not suggesting you add a Holly Hobby Easy Bake Oven to your workspace, but there are plenty of practical ways to make it smell better than cleaning supplies.
A while back I read that certain scents have a measurable effect on productivity.  If I recall correctly, lemon and lavender produced the most significant positive results.
Personally I love scented candles, especially the 3″x6″ pillars.  They not only make my office smell good, but the colorful candles and decorative candle holders add visual appeal as well.  My favorites aromas are vanilla and lemon.  I have almost a dozen scented candles in my office at any one time.  I find it worthwhile to pay for good quality candles.  I’m no candle expert, but I’ve noticed that the cheapest ones tend to burn unevenly, become terribly misshapen as they burn down, and don’t produce a very rich aroma.
Occasionally I’ll burn some Tahitian vanilla incense, but I use that very sparingly and wouldn’t recommend it in a corporate environment because you’ll stink up the whole building.  I burn it right next to an open window, which dilutes the scent and keeps the room from becoming smoky.
If you don’t like candles, there are other options for improving the smell of your office.  You can get a diffuser and fill it with essential oil, add some potpourri, or even try sliced lemons.  Be careful when considering chemical air fresheners though, as there are reports they can pose health risks.
5. Play relaxing music.
Experiment with different types of music to see what effect they have on your stress level and productivity.  Use headphones if you need to keep from disturbing others.
I prefer total silence when I do certain types of work, but for everyday tasks I like listening to music.  I use the free WinAmp player and listen to streaming music from Digitally Imported.  After listening to DI’s free streams for years, I finally bought a subscription ($60 for a year).  The subscription streams are higher quality, more reliable (no time-outs or disconnects so far), and commercial-free.  My favorite streams are Vocal Trance and New Age.
6. Get a decent chair.
Most likely you’ll use your chair more than any other object in your workspace, so consider investing in a good one.  Today there’s an assortment of oddities you can sit on, including knee chairs, balls, and more.  Head to an office supply store and find something that suits you.  If your company won’t get you a decent chair, then consider buying your own.
I don’t own a super-expensive chair (I think it was $200 originally), but it works for me.  It keeps my spine straight, and I can sit for hours without pain or discomfort.  I tested dozens of different chairs before picking this one.  It’s about 10 years old now though, so this would probably be a good time for me to take another look to see if I can find an even better one.  I’ve heard really good things about the Aeron desk chairs.  On the other hand, it might be more fun to upgrade to a throne.  :)
7. Add a portable fan.
Even with good air conditioning, you might have periods where you just want to feel a little cooler, or maybe you’d like a bit of air circulation.  Use a small portable fan to keep your comfort level right where you want it to be.
Today’s high in Las Vegas is 105 F, and later this week it’s supposed to hit 110.  Mid-summer temperatures can exceed 120 degrees.  Even with the air conditioning on, it can still get a little warm in my home office during the summer.  A portable fan is a nice addition to my workspace.  The Vornado fans are really good.  They’re a little more expensive but well worth it – they run quiet and circulate the air nicely.
8. Add a fountain.
If you find the sounds of running water soothing, consider adding a small fountain to your workspace.  You can get a basic one for under $20.
Last year I added an illuminated rock garden fountain to the corner of my home office.  I plugged the power supply into the same power base I use for my PC equipment, so I can simply flip a switch in front of me to turn it on.  I probably run it about eight hours a day on average, and I add water about once every three days.  When I hear the fountain running low, I’m reminded to water my plants too.
9. Personalize your space.
Does your workspace look like an automaton works there, or does it include elements that are uniquely you?  Remember that your workspace is your living space for much of your day, so make it livable and not just workable.  A good way to accomplish this is by adding items that hold emotional significance for you.
Photographs are an easy way to personalize your space.  I have some typical family photos in my office and the requisite wedding picture, but there’s one particular photo from when my wife and I first met that was taken by my (now deceased) grandfather that’s very special to me.  I like being able to see it when I work.  It also reminds me that I’m not alone — my wife and I are sharing a wonderful path together, and I’ve seen plenty of signs that my grandfather is watching over us.
10. Establish uninterruptible periods.
Negotiate a period of time each day where you turn off all outside communication, and encase yourself in a cocoon of concentration.  Put up a “Do Not Disturb” sign, turn off your phone, disable your instant messenger, and don’t check email either.  Use this time to work on the tasks that would cause you the greatest stress or which require your utmost concentration.  It’s easier to relax and focus when you know you won’t be interrupted.
Some jobs obviously require more solo concentration time than others.  A computer programmer may need a lot, while a receptionist may need virtually none.  Determine how much you need to be productive, and do whatever is necessary to get it.
When I really need to concentrate, I usually lock my office door.  My family sometimes objects to these communication blackouts, but with two kids at home on summer vacation now, I find it necessary to enforce some boundaries in order to get my work done.  I’m not particularly friendly or compassionate when I get interrupted while writing, so this is largely for their own safety.  ;)
Now go do it!
Take a moment to survey your workspace and jot down a few changes you’d like to make.  How can you make your workspace even more relaxing, livable, and attractive?  If cash is tight, set a budget for how much you’d like to spend on relaxifying your workspace.  Maybe you can even get your employer to pay for some of it, especially if it’s likely to boost your productivity.
What if your employer rejects the changes you’d like to make?  Some changes are certainly negotiable because of their side effects.  Your coworkers may not appreciate the scent of jasmine wafting through their workspaces.  But if your employer is downright ogre-like and won’t permit you a plant or a family photo, well… I’d recommend getting a new employer.  Your work should support your preferred lifestyle, not squash it.
Think about the most relaxing places you know of.  What is it about those places that makes you feel good?  What are the sights, sounds, and smells?  How can you modify your workspace to create a similar feel?  You might not be able to duplicate the feeling perfectly, but you can always get close.  If you don’t have time for a complete workspace makeover, then just make one little change each week.  Add a photo.  Buy a plant.  Clean up the junk pile.  Relaxify and enjoy.
Creating a Productive Workspace

How would you like to permanently boost your productivity by making some simple changes to your work area? If you’re going to spend so much time at your desk, then make sure it’s going to be a pleasant experience.
How does your workspace make you feel?
If you’re at your desk right now, take a moment to clear your mind, and think about how your work area makes you feel. Take a deep breath and get a sense of the subtle energies you pick up. How does this place make you feel?
Do you feel stressed? Worried? Relaxed? Peaceful? Fired up? Motivated? Energized? Drained? Happy? Depressed? Overwhelmed? Busy? Important? Insignificant? Bored? Excited? Rushed? Angry? Creative? Aroused? Come up with a few words to describe the feeling you get from your environment.
I recommend you leave your work area, go someplace else for a few minutes, and then re-enter your work area so you can pick up a fresh impression. Notice how your feelings change very subtly as you enter your place. What do you notice about this change?
Get a second opinion
If you have a hard time sensing your work area objectively, get a second opinion. Grab a coworker who has a fairly different work area than yours, and invite him/her to sit down at your desk. Ask him/her how it feels to enter and to sit in your work area. Get several opinions if you like. Have some fun with your co-workers, and hop from desk to desk to see how each person’s work area feels. Sit in each chair and imagine what it would be like to work there for a day. Whose work area do you like best? Whose do you like least? Maybe even rate each one on a scale of 1-10.
Notice how each environment makes you feel. Also notice that no two are quite the same.
What’s different about the work areas you rated most highly? What did you like about them?
What if you don’t like how you feel?
If you realize your work area makes you feel lousy, that’s OK. Changing the way your work environment makes you feel isn’t too difficult. There’s always a way to improve it.
All you really need to do is follow this simple rule: If it feels right, it is right. If you use that as your guiding principle for making changes to your work environment, there’s no need to bring in a feng shui expert. I spent a good bit of time studying feng shui and ultimately felt that this simple rule covered about 80% of what I wanted to remember.
Imagine your ideal space
Identify how you’d like to feel in your work area. What mental state would you consider the very best to have as your daily default? Pick two or three words to describe it. When I did this, I chose relaxed, peaceful, and focused.
Now picture what kind of work environment would help to create the feelings you’ve selected, even if it doesn’t seem realistic to work in such a place. For example, if you chose to feel peaceful, what’s the most peaceful place you can imagine? Create a mental image of the ideal place for you to work.
Alter your space
Now take your imagined ideal space, and project it onto the reality you have to deal with. Maybe you can’t work on a mountain lake, but perhaps you can bring part of that vision into your real space. Make a list of simple changes you can make to your work area. If you’re not sure they’ll work, that’s OK. Think of these changes as experiments. If you don’t like them, you can always undo them.
One by one take some time to implement these changes. Add a poster, a fountain, a candle, a plant, or some photos. After making each change, notice how your feelings change. Remember to follow the rule, “If it feels right, it is right.” If a change feels wrong or neutral, then undo it and try something else.
I want to emphasize that the rule is, “If it feels right, it is right.” Note that I’m not saying, “If it looks right, it is right.” How your environment makes you feel is more important than how it looks.
Commanding position
The most valuable idea I got from studying feng shui was the concept of the commanding position. This is the position where you feel supported from behind (and optionally on the sides too) and open in the front. For example if your house has a mountain or hill behind it, then your home would be in the commanding position, much like a highly defensible castle. In workspace terms, the commanding position ideally means that you work facing the entrance to your work area and have a wall right behind you.
The commanding position creates a feeling of security. It makes it easier to relax when you work. When you have your back to the wall and you face the entrance to your workspace, your focus is forward, and a forward focus contributes to high productivity. You never have to concern yourself with someone approaching you from behind. If part of your focus is on what’s happening behind you, you’ll be more distracted, and your productivity will suffer.
I used to work with my desk against the back wall of my office, so my back was towards the door. That just seemed an efficient layout for my office. But after studying feng shui, I decided to give the commanding position a try and rearranged the furniture so that my back was to the wall and I could see the door. It made a noticeable difference even before I’d made any other changes. I felt more comfortable and relaxed. There’s something about the feeling of being supported from behind that makes it easier to work productively.
If you think of the layout of a top executive’s office, it’s almost invariably in the commanding position. The person sits facing the entrance to the room. You don’t walk into an executive’s office and see their back.
If you’ve never worked in the commanding position, find someone else who has their office setup this way, and go sit at their desk. Notice how different it feels versus if your back is to the entrance and you have to worry about people coming up behind you. Even if you have a door behind you with a lock, the commanding position is still better.
If you make only one change to your work area, this would be the one to make. Once you’ve tried it for a few months, you’ll never want to go back.
My experience
Several months ago I altered my home office with the intention of creating the feelings of relaxation, peace, and focus. It wasn’t difficult to do, and I made most of the changes in the first week. I gave myself a budget of $200 for the alterations, but I spent less than half of it. I wasn’t sure these changes would make any difference, but it was worth a try — even a small increase in productivity would be worth it. When I made these changes my office was designed with functionality and efficiency in mind, so I wanted to keep those benefits while changing the way the location felt to me.
Currently as I sit at my desk, I’m facing into the middle of the room, so I can see the door. On the wall behind me is a poster of a mountain forest (which further reinforces the commanding position). I count nine scented candles within reach of me, some in decorative candle holders with small rocks. The room smells of cranberry, since that’s the candle that’s burning right now. There are three plants in the room: a medium-sized one on my filing cabinet and two small bamboo plants. The bamboo plants are next to a small fountain, which creates background sounds of water splashing over rocks. Behind the fountain and bamboo plants is a small mirror, which has the visual effect of doubling their presence. Relaxing music is playing through my PC speakers (currently I’m listening to Enya’s new Amarantine CD, which is one of my favorites). There are a few decorations around the room: a small stuffed yellow bear, a dragon sculpture, a turtle sculpture, a couple stone gargoyles, a miniature zen rock garden, and a crossbow. I keep my office organized and uncluttered as well, which contributes to the feelings of relaxation, peace, and focus.
When I sit down at my desk, switch on the fountain, light a candle, and put on some relaxing music, it often feels like I’m about to get a massage rather than go to work. Because the environment is so peaceful and relaxing, it’s hard for me to feel stressed or overwhelmed. I look forward to going to my office because it’s a nice place to live, not just a productive place to work. I’m sure I’ll continue improving it over the years ahead, but I’m pretty happy with the results so far.
When my wife sat down at my desk after I made the initial changes, she remarked at how different it felt. In fact, she became instantly jealous. Eventually she decided to work on transforming her office too. For Christmas I gave her a fountain and some scented candles to get her started. She set them up on a corner of her desk, and even that small change gives her work area a very different feel.
If you don’t like it, change it
If you find yourself too often feeling stressed, overwhelmed, bored, unmotivated, frustrated, etc. at work, perhaps your environment is reinforcing is these negative states. Take those feelings as a signal to make some changes and create a more balanced and comfortable work area for yourself. A few simple changes you make today can serve you for years to come.
And don’t just read about it, think about it, or talk about it. Go do it! You’ll be glad you did.