Hardly anyone has enough willpower to completely ignore what's going on around them. That's because paying attention to anything that might endanger or otherwise affect our lives in any way was vital to humans' early survival. Even today our biology prevents us from completely focusing on a task when others are in view or earshot. Unpredictable noises or sights (even a random reflection from a shiny wind chime outside) decrease our concentration.
As an environmental psychologist, I help people understand how to make their spaces work to their advantage by tweaking their environments, even in minor ways. I recently wrote about a few ways you can make your office work better for you, which looked at ways to design a space to help you stay relaxed and focused. Here I'm going to discuss ways that sights and sounds (and the lack thereof) can help you think more creatively and more efficiently. After all, who wants to spend more time working than necessary?
Choose an isolated spot for your office. Put your home office as far away as you can from your home's social areas — family room, kitchen etc. It may sound like a no-brainer, but sometimes we want to be in the center of the action and think we can still get work done. Sure, you may think you're an expert at working, carrying a conversation and watching TV all at the same time, but the truth is you're not working efficiently.
When you can't hear or see conversations and activity, your mind won't divert its active capacity to listening or looking — and you'll work better.
Add walls and doors to cut distractions. This office may not have everything going for it — there's no sunlight, for example — but being able to close doors and block sound is important for preserving creative energy. Closed doors also signal that work's in progress and only important interruptions are acceptable.
If traditional walls don't work, try something else. Not every environment can support new walls and a door. Maybe you want an open flow throughout an entire floor when you're not working, or walls and a door would cost too much to install. If that's true, add something like these sliding doors and wear headphones playing white noise.
Listening to music over headphones while you work is certainly better than hearing the television down the hall, but white noise is better than either if you want to do your best work — it's too easy to let your thoughts drift into a song. You can generate white noise by tuning a good old-fashioned radio between stations, or you can download free mp3 white noise tracks.
Be sunny. Being in daylight during the day keeps your circadian rhythms in sync with your geographic location. Think that doesn't matter? When your rhythms aren't right, your mental performance is poorer, wounds heal more slowly and you fall into a sorry mental and physical state. But being distraction free is even more important than being in sunlight.
Look to the sun for more of your home's light.
Reduce distractions with high windows. If there's so much going on outside your office window that distractions are continuous — maybe your office is beside your pool or a parking lot — add high clerestory windows. If all else fails, put heavy curtains on the lower part of existing windows to block as many distracting sights and sounds as possible but still let in sunlight.
Color your light. Warm, golden light is best for relaxing, but blue light is recommended for alertness. Buy cool lightbulbs to get the sort of blue light you need. Don't invest in the blue novelty lightbulbs, which give everything a heavy blue tint. Never work in light that couldn't occur in nature; unnatural light is a distraction all its own.
Reduce visual complexity. Visual complexity is a tricky thing to explain, but it's really important. To prevent cognitive overload when you're doing thoughtful work, it's important that your space not have too much going on visually.
This space has moderate visual complexity, which is what you want to strive for. There's some stuff out and about, and some things to rest your eyes on while thinking, like the complex light fixture, but the room is free of clutter.
Have high ceilings. We think more creatively in spaces with vertical visual space, so if what you do at home requires you to be innovative, set up your office in the area of your home with the highest ceilings, as long as that space is also distraction free.