Many of us now work from home, but some old habits are hardly working. Here are some science-backed tips to enhance your work day and work space
Covid changed the workplace culture forever and brought, for many of us, perpetual homework - the work from home never ends. Even though we know this hybrid remote working environment is here to stay, many of us have yet to create a suitable home office space for optimal productivity and creativity. Whether or not you've grown accustomed to the pseudo-office arrangement - at the kitchen, dining room table, or on the couch with the laptop on lap bearing its rightful name, it's a good time to pause and become aware of what's working for you and what's not. Working from home breeds an "always on" perception that can make it hard to create a boundary between work life and home life. Creating a designated work space with intention was crucial for my own personal boundaries, both mentally and physically.
Any office arrangement or daily routine that's not thought through - another word for that is haphazard - is likely to become a hazard. Here's a blog post to help you plan and optimize your workday and space.
The average American spends a third of their lives working, and now, a large portion of those working hours is spent remote - mostly from home. I bit the bullet and finally created a workspace and daily work routine that maximizes my cognitive potential, effectiveness, and mood.
I received guidance from Andrew Huberman's podcast on workspace optimization. I've tried and tested his tips over the last couple of months, and they've worked for me, so I don't know why they wouldn't work for you as well. Give it a try, and let me know how it goes.
Andrew Huberman is a neuroscientist with a lab at Stanford. His guidance is practical and scientifically based on peer-reviewed research. I looked at several published scientific papers he referenced for further information and fact-checking. Even though he is a bright and accomplished neuroscientist, I had to put his tips to the test and prove it to myself.
I took his advice more seriously because it made sense to start with the master control center of all human behavior - the brain. But let's start at the beginning – the brain doesn't work well unless it's had a chance to rest. A regular sleep routine significantly impacts my overall work and life routine, so I wanted to start with sleep and build from there.
I realized I wasn't sleeping well. I'd try going to bed early, dimming the lights, and putting my phone away, but my brain would still be buzzing. For several days in a row, I'd get maybe three-four hours of snooze time. This erratic sleep pattern was throwing my whole life into a tizzy. I'd try sleeping past my usual wake-up time to capture precious lost REM, which only perpetuated an irregular sleep cycle.
To improve, I began capturing my sleep data - not from my watch but from a manual observation of when I woke up each day. Taking note of my wake-up time dialed me in to the fact that my body and sleep patterns felt "off" because I was not aligned with the natural circadian rhythm my body craved.
In the past, I tried tracking my sleep with my Apple Watch, but my psychological response to the data "proving" I had a "bad night's sleep" seemed too hard to shake off. My interpretation was, "you had a bad night's sleep, so you're going to have a tough day." I tend to share it off a bit easier when I know I had a rough night's sleep, and it's not graded.
Once I found out that I usually wake up between 5 and 6 am, I did my best to keep a routine the night before that allowed me to wind down in time to get to bed at a reasonable hour. To stay within my waking window, I needed to think ahead the night before and even my day before. Getting things done and scheduling my workday, eating schedule, etc., all played a part in the ultimate wind down.
Here are adjustments I made to my routine that worked:
5- 6am - Wake up
6 am - Take Athletic Greens (AG1) vitamin and probiotic drink
6:15 am – Meditate/pray/brain spot for 60 minutes
7:15 - Get dressed and ready
8:00 – Make coffee, take vitamins, take dogs outside for a walk
8:30 am – Go to the gym and come back
10 am – Start workday; I do my best to work in 90-minute intervals, taking 5-15 breaks every 45 minutes. I don't always succeed, and with my ADHD, I should use a timer, but I don't.
Noon – eat a light lunch, always followed by dark chocolate.
1 pm – come back to work
4:30 ish - end the workday and go outside for a walk or go to yoga or both
6 ish - eat dinner so my body can digest the meal before going to bed – if I eat too much or too late, I can't fall asleep
7 ish - I started dimming the lights as the sunset, turning off overhead lights in the late afternoon – more on this below
8:30 ish – take a warm bath to wind down
9:00 ish – head to bed to read for an hour or so with a red headlamp, meditation music, and an eye mask
Here's an explanation to illuminate how and why I changed my routine.
First light is vital in the process of getting the body moving.
Huberman suggests going outside for a walk and allowing the sun to pour into your eyes (indirectly). A morning walk outside allows for optical flow to calm the nervous system so that the body is alert and awake while also being relaxed in mind. Think of Mr. Miyagi catching flies with chopsticks in Karate Kid - that kind of keen and calm focus and alertness is what we're aiming for. Optic flow is "the pattern of apparent motion of objects, surfaces, and edges in a visual scene caused by the relative motion between an observer and a scene." Optic flow, generated by walking outside (not inside), reduces stress in a way similar to EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). Francine Shapiro, the psychologist who invented EMDR, "noticed that moving her eyes from side to side seemed to reduce the occurrence of her distressing memories." (The Atlantic). She discovered this phenomenon while walking in a park in the late 80s. She was experiencing troubling thoughts and noticed that walking outside influenced her stress level due to the natural shift of her gaze from right to left as she navigated her forward ambulation. I would imagine that we all do this eye scanning as a primal defense for potential threats.
I adjusted my morning routine that he did not suggest, but that works for me. I wake up at 5 am and immediately drink down Athletic Greens (AG1). AG1 is a vitamin drink with probiotics, which are best to take on an empty stomach. I go back to my room and meditate for an hour. Yes, an hour every single morning for the past four years. I had to build up to it, but I notice I feel "off" if I skip it. Before meditating, I read something spiritual or recite a prayer to keep in mind for the meditation and the rest of the day. I also take inventory of what I feel and have started to spot specific emotional triggers in the morning. More about brain spotting later. I use brain spotting as a way of "taking out the garbage" in the mind. It is a derivative of EMDR, and I use it with my clients in coaching sessions. Most of the errant beliefs that hold us from reaching our potential are subconscious. Brain spotting pulls these unconscious beliefs out of the dark and into the light of the conscious mind and body so they can be released.
After the meditation, I throw on my workout clothes and make a Nespresso with almond creamer. Huberman says to wait 90 mins after taking AG1, but I don't – I only wait an hour or so. I leash up the dogs and step outside for the morning walk. I only go for 15 mins or so - my doggies are old, and I end up carrying them home most of the time. Also, I sometimes do eat breakfast because I'm hungry. So, I am not so rigid. If I want pancakes and bacon, I'll eat them, but I have realized eating a big breakfast can make me feel sluggish.
When I come back, I feed the dogs and don't feed myself yet. Instead, I fast until lunch. I get my analytical work done from about 8 am to noon and then go to the gym. Sometimes, I switch it up and go to the gym at 8:30 am – it depends on my schedule.
"Get morning sunlight within 30-60 days upon waking. Light daytime environment with as much light and as much overhead light as safely possible. Turn on overhead lights - the neurons in our eyes, melanopsin ganglion cells, are mainly enriched in the lower half of our retinas and view the upper visual field. Those neurons send little wires to an area of our hypothalamus, right above the roof of our mouth, that creates a state of alertness."
Let's talk about light and the body's natural priming by way of neurochemistry to get the most amount of focused work done.
Before starting my morning work, I turn on nearly every light in my condo. I also arranged my workspace in front of a giant window to capture Vitamin D from open windows. I have two large potted trees and a plant in space as well. He said nothing about the plants; I think keeping things alive in the home keeps me alive, too. We know outside light from the sun is essential for vitamin D, but interior lighting is also key to keeping us alert indoors. Notice if you try to do work in a dim-lit space vs. a bright room on your own time, and let me know what you experience. Per Huberman, in Phase 1 of the day (0 to 6-9 hours after waking up) - overhead lights set us up to be more alert. He says, "The neurons in our eyes, melanopsin ganglion cells, are mainly enriched view upper visual field and send wires to our hypothalamus right above the mouth, creating a state of alertness."
"Early in the day, we want to be as alert as possible, and this Phase 1 of our circadian cycle is when we are best at doing our detailed analytic type of work. Overhead light and a well-lit environment facilitate focus and further release of things like dopamine and norepinephrine and healthy amounts of cortisol."
He also suggests having a light in front of you - like a ring light, which has blue light that stimulates those melanopsin ganglion cells. You can use a blue light or a light pad - he suggests an Artograph Light pad, 930 Lux. I have not tried this, but I use a ring light. He suggests the "bombardment of photons" helps maintain focus alertness. I also place my desk near a window and open the windows because sunlight is the best stimulus to wake up the brain and body. Getting the blue light through an open window maximizes the effectiveness of light stimulation to the brain.
Light exposure at the right time of the day can boost our mood. Per Huberman's podcast, evidence suggests that exposure to light at the wrong times of the day, when we are supposed to be sleeping (11 am to 4 am), can activate a pro-depressive neural circuit. I plan to further research later.
In keeping with the circadian cycle, phase 2 is 9- 16 hours after waking. Huberman suggests dimming the lights in the afternoon – for me around 2 or 3 pm. I don't make it dark; I only turn off the overhead lights. It doesn't make that big difference for me because I have five windows that reach the top of a twenty-foot ceiling. So, I have some intrinsic limits within my environment.
The afternoon is not quite sleepy time, but I bring the lights down a notch, which supposedly shifts the body to higher production of serotonin versus dopamine and epinephrin. This shift from dopamine and epinephrine to serotonin is better for more creative and abstract thinking.
I got a stand-up desk, sit 50% of the time, and stand for the other 50%. I like to move around and have a mild case of ADHD, so I must move my body, shake and dance around on the regular to keep myself grounded. Otherwise, I get antsy and a little irritable.
I set up my computer to be slightly higher than eye level. So, try this: reach your arms out directly in front of you and create a frame with my right and left thumbs and pointer fingers. Measure the placement of your nose in the center of that frame. You'll find your ideal area of focus on the computer slightly above that nose position. Notice that your vision will be tilted slightly upward. Why do this?
According to Huberman, "Where our focus is how alert we are going to be and how well we can maintain that alertness."
"There's a very under-appreciated and yet incredible aspect of our neurology that has to do with the relationship between where we look and our level of alertness. We have clusters of neurons in our brainstem, and they control our eyelid muscles and our eye movements up and down [and to the sides]. There are six muscles attached to the eyeball. Four of them are located at the twelve, six, nine and three o'clock of the eyeball…When we are looking down toward the ground or anywhere below the central region of our face, the neurons that control that eye movement are intimately related to areas of the brainstem that release certain types of neuromodulators and neurotransmitters and they activate areas of the brain that are associated with calm and indeed, even with sleepiness and there's an active inhibition or prevention of neurons that increase alertness. Now the opposite is also true, we have neurons that place our eyes into an upward gaze above the sort of level of our nose and up above our forehead. Literally looking up while keeping the head stationary, or if you tilt your head back and you look up, the neurons are still active. Those neurons don't just control the position of the eyes and cause them to move up, they also trigger the activation of brain circuits that are associated with alertness. This is a fundamental feature with the way our eyes and brain are wired together and how they relate to what we can autonomic arousal. When you are looking down, you are decelerating your alertness - it might be subtle. When you look straight ahead or look up, you're increasing your level of alertness."
Huberman references "beautiful data illustrating that when we are standing up, those same neurons in our brainstem, locus coeruleus neurons, which release norepinephrine and epinephrin, … become active when we are standing, and they become even more active when we are ambulatory…" Conversely, these neurons fire less when we are sitting or lying down.
What about focus?
As mentioned before, I have been diagnosed with mild ADHD. I am willing to try any trick in the book to enhance focus. Due to the distracting nature of technology, social media, etc., we've often heard that the average attention span has decreased significantly. Huberman says that unless we are overwhelmed, scared, or excited about what we're about to focus on workwise, it will likely take 6 minutes to engage and focus fully. He likens it to warming up the body before exercise; we must also warm up the brain. Further, on average, we can only focus for 3 minutes before switching tasks, so all of these focus hacks help. Here are some other suggestions:
Work in 90-minute cycles, taking a 5–15-minute break every 45 minutes to change the visual window from focused to panoramic - read below as to why this helps rest the eyes.
Do analytical work in the morning and notice the impact of ceiling height on different types of cognitive processing you engage in. Higher ceilings lend to more creative work, and lower ceilings lend to more detailed, analytical work – more on this below.
In my breaks, if I can't go outside, I'll dance and work up a sweat, or I'll do headstands or handstands to get the blood flowing.
There are environments you can put yourself in that narrow focus so you can attend to something more analytic.
The cathedral effect
According to a research paper by Joan Myers-Levy and Juliet Zhu, ceiling height can impact cognitive function and the type of cognitive processing associated with variable ceiling heights. People in high ceiling rooms or environments would shift their thinking to "higher aspirations, loftier thinking, [and would generate more] expansive ideas. Conversely, those in environments with lower ceilings often used more "restrictive language about things in their immediate space."
Huberman breaks this down by describing the adaptive neurobiology of the visual system. "[O]ur brains and bodies evolved for different environments [and] our nervous system has a number of systems that are adaptive to different environments." We can stand on a mountain or in a wide-open field, and our senses scale up to meet the expansion of our visual and sensory field. In the same way, when we find ourselves in smaller spaces or inside, our focus and senses scale down. He explains the well-worn proven theory that the "size and amplitude of people's spontaneous movements" contracts in restrictive areas like an elevator even if the person can physically fully expand the body. This makes me think of how expansive I feel running in the fields to the tune of The Sound of Music! I am more footloose and fancy-free in wide-open space than in my condo elevator.
Again, he has a beautiful way of explaining why this is -
"The vestibular motor system and optical system are intimately linked." He gives a way to test this out:
Expand the arms out "like wings" and try to reach behind you, opening your chest and maintaining the arms level-ish with the shoulders
Now, without moving the head, shift the gaze to the right, then to the left "as if you're almost looking over your left [and right] shoulder." Look up and down as well.
Now, open your arms and see if you can open wider than before. It's as if your body has enhanced its flexibility in seconds.
For creative work, try these tips:
Try to leverage the cathedral effect or go outside so your ceiling is the highest it could be – the sky.
Save creative work and brainstorming for the afternoon when less cortisol and more serotonin are flowing naturally.
Give yourself access to panoramic views to open your visual field – as we expand our horizons, so do our ability for abstract thinking.
Thanks to Andrew Huberman, we have neurologically grounded and evidence-backed methods to optimize performance across a multitude of areas in our life. By tweaking his methods to suit my style and routine, I've become not only more focused but happier, less irritable, and more even-keeled. What's better- as a four of the enneagram, my growth area is to become more grounded in routine, so changing my behavior in this way gives me the structure I necessary to come down from the clouds and back down to earth.
Oh – one more thing. I mentioned I use a red headlamp to read to wind down at bedtime -here's why. My friend Kate recommended it to me because she uses one, and so do all four of her kiddos before going to bed. Supposedly red-light wavelengths assist with the production of melatonin, which is the hormone produced by the body to help you sleep. As night falls, the brain releases more melatonin and less upon exposure to light. Also, the blue light from the phone screen can key me up, so making the shift from blue light to red light helps me wind down.