Feeling Frazzled Working from Home? These Design Tweaks Can Help Your Brain

Remember when working from home was a big perk?

In search of a more balanced life, the number of people working from home has been steadily rising for decades. Some people have even agreed to accept less pay in return for the added benefits of remote working, like a break from the grueling commute, a chance to walk the dog or a quiet reprieve from a busy office. Studies suggest that working from home may be more advantageous for creative or complex jobs over those involving repetitive tasks. But the evidence also points to widespread promising benefits like improved productivity and job satisfaction and lower stress.

In mid-March, many people unexpectedly got their wish to work from home. Up to half of all workers are now working remotely, but their expectations of peace and productivity might not be matched by the moment. Experts say that this sudden influx of remote workers is likely to lower productivity for many. Whereas established at-home workers typically have a dedicated office space and the right technology, new, temporary remote workers are often working in common spaces shared with children, other family members, roommates or pets. These multi-tasking environments mean little privacy and no in-person interaction with colleagues—both important elements of a happy and productive work life.

Itai Palti, director of Hume, a science-informed architecture and urban design practice explained, “When the roles we are used to taking on outside the house are displaced into the home, this can cause dissonance. How can I be a manager and a mother in the same space, for example? This mixing of roles in a single space means divided attention and the need to create boundaries between work and rest.”

The truth is, we’re working from home, playing from home, learning from home and eating from home. We’re just home. With so much going on in one place, you may wonder—is it possible to design a space for both productivity and relaxation?

Why Environment Matters

Most cognitive psychologists agree that attention—the selective filtering of perceptual information (all the things we see, taste, hear, smell and touch)—was likely an early adaptation in the evolution of cognitive systems because of its connection to our survival. Our brains focus on the thing we want them to focus on, also known as the “conscious” or “attended” input, while also monitoring all other stimuli in the environment unconsciously. In prehistoric times, this trait allowed a mother to feed her baby and tend a fire while still being alert to the sound of approaching predators.

Today, while you may ask your brain to focus on that presentation you need to finish, you find yourself distracted by the loud banging noises coming from the next room, the barking dog, how cold you are or the uncomfortable chair you’re sitting in. Even though you’ve given it clear directions, your brain is still monitoring all the things around you to improve your chances of survival.

This involuntary scanning and monitoring can be a real barrier to both working productively and relaxing and replenishing your mental reserves.

The good news is there are many small tweaks you can make at home to reduce your fogginess and up your mindfulness.

How to Design a Space That Works for You

According to architect and Reddymade founder Suchi Reddy, it’s possible to create spaces for both work and relaxation, whether you live in a spacious single-family home, studio apartment or micro-unit.

TRIED AND TRUE: These universal aesthetic principles can boost your overall mood and focus, helping to create a space for either productivity or restoration.

  • Natural Elements: Natural lighting has been shown to improve learning, mood, recovery and a variety of other indicators. Likewise, greenery and other natural features indoors may improve mood, enhance working memory and accelerate recovery from stress. To bring a little of the outside in, try to orient your work or restorative space near a window or close to a few household plants.
  • Limited Sound: Noisy environments impair cognitive functioning, so take care to create a sound barrier, if at all possible. Close the door to your space, use a white noise app to buffer environmental sounds, or set up a desktop water feature for ultimate zen.

SWITCH IT UP: Reddy offers three environmental elements you can adjust to easily switch one space from work mode to relax mode.

  • Light: To enhance productivity, Reddy recommends light sources with 3000K color temperature that point downward or bounce off the walls, augmented with task lighting on a work surface. If at all possible, install dimmer switches with maximum brightness calibrated to match daylight conditions. To create a space for downtime and relaxation, turn on a floor lamp with a 2700K color temperature, or set your dimmer to mimic twilight or dusk.
  • Texture: Perhaps the most easily adjustable element, Reddy suggests grabbing a soft pillow or blanket to enhance your restoration activities and a firm, supportive cushion that promotes a good work posture to enhance productivity.
  • Scent: Use energizing scents like rosemary, citrus and peppermint channeled through essential oils, candles or fresh fruits and herbs for a productivity boost, says Reddy. Switch to the soothing aromas of lavender and chamomile for restoration.

KNOW THYSELF: Perhaps most importantly, take the time to tailor your design to your personality and unique preferences.

  • Introverts may prefer silence, soft instrumental music or ambient noise. They are more likely to be distracted by noise in general or by lyrics. Extroverts, on the other hand, often prefer more background noise and music with lyrics. Plan your playlist accordingly.
  • Color can affect our mood, cognitive functioning and energy level, but in a highly personal way depending on age, gender, culture and several other factors. Test out color in your space. Hang a scarf or tapestry. Bring in a bouquet of flowers. Try out a colored light bulb. See which colors give you energy and which help you to unwind.

This is article is a part of IAM Lab’s regularly updated COVID-19 NeuroArts Field Guide. Be sure to check the Guide for the latest, evidence-based tips on how the arts can support our wellbeing during the pandemic.

We would also like to hear from you: Are you, your loved ones or colleagues dealing with specific issues and want to learn more about art-based solutions?  Are you already using the arts to help you cope?   

Please share your thoughts, ideas and concerns with us at covid19arts@artsandmindlab.org.  Be well and stay safe.

Lead Image: allie / Unsplash

Cognition COVID-19 Design Environment Wellbeing