How To Use Psychology To Design Your Perfect Workspace

Great work happens when our inner and external environments complement each other.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | March 9, 2023

We're often told that willpower and motivation is the critical factor in creating great work. While that might be true, there are external factors, like our workstation, that have the power to either ignite our mind or inhibit our potential. 

The truth is that our environment has a sizable impact on the quality and quantity of work we produce. If we are working in a suboptimal workstation, we might have to use twice as much willpower or concentration (both of which are limited resources) to produce the same amount of work.

If you think there may be ways to improve your workstation, here are three steps to get the journey started. 

#1. Pick your space wisely

The internet and well-wishers inundate us with excessive advice about what makes for optimal productivity. Some people like to work outdoors, while others lock themselves up inside their cabins or studios. Some people swear by the productivity of working before sunrise. Night owls prefer the solitude of the night. 

The most important thing to remember when receiving such advice is that everyone is different so their idea of the perfect work environment may not apply to you. According to research published in the Journal of Research In Personality, designing your ideal workspace is a matter of personality alignment.

For instance, if you are an introvert, an open-planned office might negatively affect your productivity. The opposite might be true for an extrovert. 

To get started, ask yourself the following questions and use your answers as guiding principles for putting together your new workspace:

  1. When during the day are my energy levels at their highest?
  2. Do I like other people's input while working or after I'm done working?
  3. Do I work better in a team or solo?
  4. Do I like working flexibly or within a set of predetermined hours during the day?

It's also important to know your 'chronotype.' Recent research published Personality and Individual Differences replicated the well-known morning person/evening person dichotomy but also added two additional chronotypes to the mix: 'nappers' and 'afternooners.' According the research, afternoon types wake up with the highest levels of sleepiness out of all of the chronotypes. Sleepiness abates by about 11 a.m., and their alertness stays high until approximately 5 p.m. At that point, sleepiness begins to set in again and rises steadily into the late evening. Nappers, on the other hand, begin the day very alert and remain that way until about 11 a.m. Then sleepiness starts to set in, peaking at around 3 p.m. After that, alertness returns until approximately 10 p.m., at which point sleepiness increases again, but less sharply than for the other groups.

#2. Let the light in

Sunlight holds more power over our productivity and moods than we give it credit for. While there may be outliers who like to work in the dark, sunlight contributes to better energy levels, which tends to boost productivity. 

A study published in Cognition and Emotion points out that countries that receive more hours of sunlight exposure annually report higher levels of happiness. Researcher Satoshi Kanazawa explains that this is because "the natural response designed by evolution is to feel safe, secure, and happy when exposed to sunlight."

To ensure an energetic, motivated, and focused state of mind, try setting up your workspace in a sunlit spot in your house or office or make sure that your workspace is well-lit by artificial light to promote clarity and wakefulness.

#3. Cut the clutter

An uncluttered workspace should be a no-brainer. However, most people have an excessive number of objects and information strewn about in and around their workspace. This is especially true for 'creative' people whose work might involve taking advantage of divergent thinking and threading together seemingly unrelated bits of knowledge.

Unfortunately, the downside of having clutter around is that it can make you anxious and agitated. More importantly, it fills your work environment with distractions or, as psychologist Asaf Mazar puts it, 'friction'. This figurative friction created by an overstimulating and distracting environment can be reduced by removing the 'minor' distractions that hinder positive behavior. For instance, if you always find yourself reaching for your phone when you hit a difficult point in your work, it's probably worth designating a spot for your phone that is out of arm's distance.