Is Your Environment Helping You Think?

When I first became a coach, I lived in a condominium in the heart of Phoenix. I carved out a perfect space on the side of my kitchen so I could keep my business from taking over my house. There was a big window that provided plenty of natural light. Yet the scenery was sparse; I could only see part of a tree that separated my door from my neighbor’s. Yet the space was big enough for my desk, computer equipment, a client file cabinet and a small bookcase for the books I wanted to get my hands on quickly. I had access to both the kitchen and the bathroom. What else did I need?

I just demonstrated the problem with most space planning—we only account for the space we need to accommodate our furniture. In other words, we consider the logistical needs and ignore the aesthetics. Yet new research proves that the height of the ceilings, the view from the windows, the shape of the furniture, the color on the walls, the artwork and the type and intensity of lighting all affect our thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

Jonas Salk recognized the difference his surroundings made when working on a cure for polio. When he left his basement laboratory to travel to Assisi, Italy, his mind jumped into hyperdrive. The beautiful, serene environment stimulated the breakthroughs he needed to create a successful vaccine. This experience led him to team up with renowned architect Louis Kahn to build the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California to replicate the experience. Salk wanted his researchers to also draw the inspiration from the setting they work in.

Here are some elements to consider when designing your work space:

1.      Freedom to think.

In 2007, Joan Meyers-Levy from the University of Minnesota reported clear evidence that the height of a room’s ceiling affects how people think. Ceilings higher than ten feet prompted more creative, abstract thinking. Higher ceilings encourage people to think more freely. On the other hand, lower ceilings can facilitate more detailed work. You might want to balance your checkbook or perform surgery in a room with an eight-foot ceiling. If you can’t change the height of your ceiling, use light-colored paint on the walls and hang a few mirrors to make the room feel more spacious.

2.   A room with a view.

You might think that being able to view the outside world would be a distraction. It turns out that being able to gaze on a garden, a mountain, a field or some trees actually improves focus. Nancy Wells and a team at Cornell University found that children who could see greenery as they worked had the most gains on tests of attention. They also found that college students with views of nature scored higher on mental focus then their view-deprived counterparts. Humans have an innate positive response to nature. When you bring the outside in, you improve your ability to concentrate. It’s worth your money to cut a few windows into your walls and switch out the solid doors for glass ones.

3.   Seeing the light.

Since daylight synchronizes your sleep-wake cycle, working in a room that lacks natural light can leave you feeling something akin to jet lag. One study from a consulting firm in California found that the more natural light a classroom has, the faster the students academically progress. It’s no wonder that people with dementia deteriorate quickly when put in a dingy institution. If you can’t bring in natural light, there are lamps that mimic the effect of daylight on the body. You can use blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and full-spectrum fluorescent lights in buildings during the day and then as you move into the later afternoon, switch to lamps with longer-wavelength bulbs which emit less light detected by the circadian system. Dimmer lights help people to relax and loosen up, which they should be doing at the end of the day. You will feel happier and more productive when your brain can sense the difference between night and day on a routine basis.

4.   Create an opening.

Research now supports what Feng Shui masters have been telling us for years: A room must be soothing to your senses. To achieve this affect, 1) remove the clutter. 2) Camouflage electrical wires and equipment. 3) Buy furniture with curved or rounded edges instead of sharp or squared edges. The brain associates danger with sharp edges, causing small bursts of anxiety. 4) Place objects so you can move around your room with ease. You don’t want to worry about knocking things over or hurting yourself. The more open, safe and soothing your office is, the more your brain is free to create.

I now live in a larger home. This time, I took aesthetics into account when designing my office. I could have converted a bedroom into my office but I chose the living room instead since the ceilings were higher. I placed my desk near the big picture window. When I work, the natural light shines in from behind me. When I coach, I swivel my chair around to observe the mountains, the trees, and the hummingbirds that drink from the flowers below my window. The walls are painted light-chocolate brown which provides a nice contrast for my art work and plants. I converted the dining room into a library where I can keep my books and research close by, but they do not clutter my space. Glass walls separate the space so my business doesn’t take over my life while the office maintains a sense of openness. I can see the difference in my coaching, my writing and my happiness.

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