Five rules for creating a work environment where you can thrive

One of the "benefits" of starting and running your own business - especially a small business - is that you get to work in your own office. That office can be at home, in a co-working space or even a real office - the "benefit" is that you have your space where you create and build and do your thing. This is your environment - this is where you create, make and build your business. How you organise your work environment can make a huge difference in how productive you are. If you can design and manage it with productivity in mind you will have a great space, a great working environment and chances are you will be very productive. But the converse is also true - a badly designed and managed workspace can suck the productivity right out of you.

No matter how modest your "office" is, you can design it to be more productive. Here are five rules for creating a work environment where you can thrive.

Rule #1: A great view can be a great distraction

I'm fortunate enough to have my office in a converted garage at the back of our garden. My commute from our house to my office is about 20 steps - far enough to create a separation between home and work life, and close enough that I can make silly jokes about the traffic on the way home.

From my desk, I have a great view over our garden. Living in Calgary in Canada means that for half the year the view is mostly of snow and winter, but even so that view is nice - there's a bird feeder we keep stocked up during winter and all sorts of birds come to feed when food is hard to find elsewhere. Add into that squirrels and rabbits and we have a veritable little zoo going.

As beautiful as the view over the garden and wildlife can be, it can also be a distraction. I often find myself staring at the antics of the squirrels and the squabbles amongst the sparrows - but as entertaining as this is, I have to realise it distracts me from my work.

If you have a view from where you work, ask yourself just how distracting it can be. If you're in a co-working space where other entrepreneurs are up to antics, you may want to see if moving to a quieter view is going to help your productivity. A great view is, well, great - but too much action out there and you will continuously be distracted.

Rule #2: Learn from professional chefs

Professional chefs use mise en place to organise their workspace and food production. Mise en place is a French culinary phrase which means "putting in place" or "everything in its place."

A professional kitchen has everything in its place and ready to go

This is how chefs manage to produce great food fast, at volume and always tasting great. Every tool has a place - and the tool is in its place. Ingredients are washed, chopped, grated, cut and measured before cooking and plating; there's no peeling potatoes just before you need to cook them.

An organised workspace follows the same principles. There's a place for everything, and everything is in its place. As inconsequential as it may sound, having everything in its place means you don't have to search for your stapler, or pens or paper.

That little bit of time-saving is not just about saving time - when you know where your stuff is, there's an underlying sense of calmness that you don't have to scrabble to find the stuff you need to do your work. Just think of the last time you wondered where your wallet is - did that not create a moment of panic as you wondered whether it was stolen?

So create a place for everything, and keep everything in its place. You will feel calmer and you will be more productive.

Rule #3: Clear the decks

When I get really busy on a project, I tend to end up with a ton of stuff on my desk and on the floor around me. While I'm working on the project this is fine - I'm intensely focused on what I do and the "mess" doesn't bother me.

But when you switch from one project to the next, that mess can be a huge distraction.

As I'm writing this, I'm preparing for two workshops - a half-day Revenue Engine Design workshop and a brand facilitation for a large client running across two days. Each workshop has materials (worksheets, large Post-It sheets, pens, and so on) that I need to prepare well in advance. It just so happens that the workshops are so close together that I have to finish my preparation for both before either of them starts.

If I had to have materials from both workshops lying around on my desk and on the floor, I would be in a constant state of panic. Materials from one workshop would be messed up with materials from the other, and I wouldn't have a clear picture of what was done, what was partially complete and what I still had to do.

So the moral of the story is this: Clear your workspace completely before you start working on a new project. When you start with a clear desk (and floor, in my case) you will be more calm, organised and productive.

Rule #4: Work on one thing at a time

Closely related to clearing the decks is the principle of working on one thing at a time.

In the computer world, the term context switching is used to describe the process that a computer goes through to switch from one task to another. To do this, the computer has to save the current state of the task it was working on, load the saved state of the task it needs to switch to and resume where it left off. Every context switch takes time and uses resources.

When we switch from one task to another, we have go through a similar process. Quite often, we just drop one task and switch to the other - but figuring out where we were, and what we need to do next, takes time. Research shows that "even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone's productive time."

So what does this have to do with designing your workspace for productivity?

To be able to switch effectively from one task to another, you have to know where your stuff is - so everything needs a place and everything needs to go into its place. Similarly, you need to clear the decks so you can work on one task with the minimum of distraction. If you work on one thing at a time only, your environment will be less messy and distracting.

So when you discipline yourself to work on one thing at a time only, you will be forcing yourself to use the other rules.

Rule #5: Create your own noise

It's not always easy to control the amount of noise around you. If you're in a co-working space, you have almost no control and sudden noises around you will distract you. But there are some things you can do to reduce the impact of unexpected sounds.

A break during a workshop I was running in 2019. This is a "noisy" environment—don't expect to get deep work done here.

When I need to do deep work - work where I need to focus intensely for extended periods of time, I often use background music to drown out the other sounds around me. My personal favourites fall into the electronica and ambient genres - music with a relatively slow beat, repetitive loops and no lyrics. Alternatively, you can look at white noise - sounds that help you focus, relax and even sleep better.

Our brains are wonderfully adept at filtering out some sounds in preference to others. Creating your own "noise" can help you filter out sounds you don't want to hear - and focus better for longer periods of time.


So there are the five rules for creating a productive work environment:

  • find a view that doesn't distract you too much;
  • a place for everything, and everything in its place (mise en place);
  • clear the decks;
  • work on one thing at a time; and
  • create your own noise to reduce the impact of unexpected sounds.

Your mileage may vary, and you may have your own favourite tricks. But the bottom line is this:

It doesn't take a lot of effort to design your work environment for high productivity - and it's worth every minute you spend maintaining it that way.

What you can do now

I hope this helps you create are more productive work environment. If you want to learn more about productivity and managing overwhelm, download the Beginner's Guide to the Tornado Method - it will not only help you cope with all the demands of building a business, but it will also give you tools and techniques for dealing with overwhelm.

Good luck building your business.

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