Designing Work Environments

As a remote worker, I often find myself reflecting on my work environment. Indeed, one of the most important benefits of remote working is that you have full control over you work environment — where you work, how it looks, et cetera. One of the things I have recently realized is how many people underestimate the power of a good working environment. Being able to take a step back and think through decisions and actions is a critical part of making good choices, but most work environments are not set up for that kind of thinking. What got me thinking about this is that although your mental processes are important you have to be able to actually use them. If you are not in a good environment, it becomes very difficult to think effectively — you have a lot of other things to worry about.

Modern Offices Are Not Effective

The modern office environment with all of its grandeur is not an effective place to do deep work. Indeed, most office environments consist of people running around all day, answering emails as soon as they come in, attending meetings which most likely could have been put in an email, among other things. We form opinions on-the-spot in order to appear productive — like we have read the 10-page briefing that we were supposed to about the new project. Even if we had, it is unlikely that we would have had the time necessary to digest all of the information we have read, and consider it in depth. Office workers are always doing something, and there are distractions everywhere. You get a phone call; you get another email; your calendar gives you a reminder about a meeting that is happening in only 10 minutes that you have not fully prepared for. The current office environment is based on the principle that if you are moving, you are productive. And so we try to move around as much as possible and accomplish all the tasks we can in one day. After all, if we are just sitting in a chair all day, people think that we are not being out most productive self.

I have spent a lot of time cultivating a peaceful work environment. I understand that not everyone can enjoy the benefits of designing their own work environments, but those who do work remotely often fail to spend time planning their surroundings. Many successful people have spent a lot of their time designing their environments so that they can be their best and most productive selves. Warren Buffett is renowned for spending a lot of his days reading — spending time on reading allows you to improve your knowledge. In most offices, unless you are reading a report, people would question what you are doing. But Buffett has developed an office that works around what helps him become his best self. He does not check emails all day; every day is not full of meetings. He reads, digests the information, and works when he is ready to do so. Buffett’s work environment was meticulously crafted to help him be his best self. Many other successful people mirror this philosophy. Google, for example, revolutionized our idea of modern offices — introducing chefs, more plant life inside the office, among other things — because they knew that a good work environment made it easier for workers to be their best selves.

Why You Should Consciously Design Your Work Environment

Our environments play a critical role in how we live our lives. We often say to ourselves that we are fully in control of our actions, but our environments actually influence a lot of our actions. Let’s say that everyone else in our office responds to emails as soon as they come in. We could say that we will get to them later, but if everyone else is on top of their inboxes, then we will feel pressured to do the same. If our environment is messy, then our mind has to focus on all of the other things going on around us — it cannot focus solely on the task that we are working on in the moment. Indeed, learning mental models is a crucial part of making better decisions and optimizing our life, but one of the most impactful changes we can make is to take a step back and rethink our working environments. Is our current working space optimized for me? Can I do deep work in this space? If not, what changes can I make to be more productive?

There is no one-size-fits-all recipe: everyone has their own idea of what a perfect work environment looks like. For me, personally, I enjoy a quiet work environment in my home, sitting in front of a window that allows me to look upon the sky. I have done a lot of great work sitting where I am today — indeed, I wrote my first book in the very chair in which I am sitting right now. My work environment is simple and designed to help me focus solely on my work, while being able to experience the natural light from the window in front of me. For others, though, a busier office environment may work; perhaps working in a dark room is better as well. It really depends on how you work, and what you care about most in your working environment.

Designing an Optimal Work Environment

I have a few ideas about how to more effectively design our environments. The first would be to set aside blocks of time scheduled for deep work. During these periods, I am focused solely on the task in front of me. I am not interested in the notifications that appear or anything else that is going on — all that matters is what I am working on. I typically reserve the hours of 8-12 for deep work, as during that period I am my most creative self. My afternoons are usually reserved for less meaningful work — emails, notifications, administrative tasks, et cetera. But in my mornings, I want to have a period where I can work without having to think about distractions. These blocks of time give me the ability to enter a state of flow and produce better quality work in the end.

It is also important for us to plan our day based on when we are most productive. I believe that a lot of people leave important tasks to later in the day when they should be done as soon as you start working. During my mornings, I am focused on writing which comprises the majority of my work. I am most alert and awake during the mornings, and I find that I can focus for longer if I start working as soon as I have eaten breakfast and meditated. Writing is the most important part of my working day, and so I schedule it accordingly. I leave all of my meetings to the afternoons — and also evenings, due to timezone differences — because I know that I have accomplished all of my writing goals for that day. Planning your schedule can be difficult, especially if you have a lot of tasks to accomplish. My rule is that the most important tasks should come first, and those that are less important should be scheduled for later.

Another thought I have on environment design is that we should try to create a place where we can be our best selves. In Atomic Habits by James Clear, a book about habit formation, one of the key overarching themes is the importance of creating an environment conductive of your best qualities. If you are trying to break a habit, make it difficult to do that habit. If you are trying to cultivate a new habit, make it easy to start doing it. I write in the same place every day because when I go to sit in that place, I know that it is time to write. My mind starts to prepare for writing because I know that if it is the morning and I am sitting in my work spot, then I should be writing. I also keep snacks away from my desk at all times — I often have a glass of water or a coffee on my desk, but aside from that, I keep consumables away from my desk. I know that if I kept a bar of chocolate on my desk that I would eat it. It would be right in front of me, and impossible for me to resist. Indeed, my desk is very clear and only has the things I need to work sitting upon it, because anything else would only distract me from my work.

Environment design is a critical part of being able to do your best work. Spending some time to develop a good working environment will make it easier for you to do your best work and become the best version of your self. Once you have made changes to your environment, you can almost immediately realize results. If you work in an untidy room, tidy it in the evening and see how much better you work the next day, now that you don’t have to worry about all of the mess around you. Distractions in our environment make it difficult for us to focus on the work that matters most, and we should do all we can to eliminate such distractions from our work environment. When you are thinking about how you can improve your work patterns, first ask yourself: is my work environment the best it could be?

Schedule periods of deep work. Eliminate distractions. Plan your days. Consciously design your work environment.