Work Environment Hacks

Working from home is a huge goal for many people. The allure is strong – no commute, you can do it in your pajamas, and you can eat your lunch when you want to. Even people who would no more start an ittybiz than fly to the moon still dream of a day when they can just work from their freaking house.

Having said that, most of our home offices suck.

For one thing, they’re rarely offices. Working in our PJs at our kitchen table has become almost a badge of honor in the solopreneur community.

And even if they are offices, they’re cramped, they’re messy and they create an environment that the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board would have to step in about if you ever forced anyone else to work there.

Unsurprisingly, that has effects on a person.

One of the first things new ittybiz owners notice as they begin working from home is the novel, overwhelming feeling of being unmotivated, unproductive, and lazy.

People who were SUPERSTARS in every job they’ve ever had become unmotivated lumps when they start working from home. Ever said any of these?

“I’ve gotta get off my ass.”
“I keep meaning to do it.”
“I have to get serious about work.”

¿Qué? People with masters' degrees who have left 6-figure upper management jobs “have to get serious” about work? This makes no sense. We’ve been star players in every position we’ve ever held.

But when it comes time to apply those years of experience and mad skills to something we deeply care about… all of a sudden we’re deadbeats?

Well, what changed?

What changed is the environment.

So if you’re feeling more zero than hero right now, and you feel like YOUR environment could be to blame, here are 7 ways to fix the place you work and get yourself back on track.

(Psst – if you pay really close attention, you’ll notice a theme.)

1. Your sense of sight.

Scientists estimate that a full 25% of your brain’s RAM is devoted to processing visual input. The human brain is the greatest supercomputer on earth, and an entire quarter of it is spent… looking at stuff.

Pro tip: What you see matters.

Are you in your workspace right now? Look around you. Would you hire someone to work here, looking the way it does right now? If the answer is no, you have some work to do.

We’re often pretty good at being careful about what we look at. We choose the pretty laptop, say, or the cool-looking phone case. The big problem comes in with what we’re not looking at, but we’re still seeing anyway.

Clutter, of course. Laundry, children’s homework, and your spouse’s hobby supplies sharing space with your client files, obviously. But even the presence of things that make you feel anything less than productive has a huge effect on your ability to execute your primary work functions.

You see laundry, you think about laundry. You see craft supplies, you think you’d rather be quilting. You see a pile of books, you think you’re hopelessly behind on your To Be Read pile.

For many of us, a fully dedicated work sanctuary is impractical or even undesirable. But look at your workspace with fresh eyes, understanding that every single visual distraction is a liability.

Do with that what you will.

2. Your sense of sound.

It took me about 3 years of working from home to realize what was throwing me off so much. Every office I ever worked in played the radio. Working in my home office was like working in a tomb. My keystrokes echoed.

Sound can be a tricky thing to customize, but when you can get the right sound environment can give your brain a serious turbo-boost.

Consider what would be good for you to hear during your workday. You might have some ideal, like silence or gentle music or a concentration / relaxation app. But you might also find you work best in an auditory environment that mimics places you associate with work. Maybe that horrible easy listening station they played at your last office is just what the doctor ordered.

(I was going to be all clever here and say whatever the name of a hearing doctor was, but then I looked it up, and it turns out a hearing doctor is called a otolaryngologist. So, yeah. Never mind.)

3. Your sense of smell.

Our sense of smell is the most ancient and developed of our senses. Smells are instantaneously evocative and transformative. Within seconds you can eliminate nausea with ginger, headaches with peppermint, or loneliness with Grandma’s Kitchen.

The reason Yankee Candle gets so much of our freaking money every freaking year is because they’re not selling candles. They’re sending transportation – to a different place, to a different time, or to a different state of being.

And yet? Our offices smell like cat litter. It is not reasonable to think you’re going to achieve your great work here.

In this context, smell is comprised of two components. You want to eliminate bad smells, and you want to incorporate good smells that contribute to a conducive work environment. That second bit matters – you’re not trying for “smells nice”. You’re trying for “productive”.

If you’re into essential oils, you’re probably underutilizing them. If you’re not into essential oils but you want to be, start with lime.

4. Your sense of taste.

Taste is a funny thing. You wouldn’t think it matters here. It’s not like you’re licking your desk. But one of the things that a lot of people notice when they start working from home is that they eat and drink WAY differently than they used to.

When you went to the office, you stopped by that little place to get a Montreal-style bagel in the morning. When you wanted to stretch your legs and get some time away from a task, you went to the coffee room and made one of those hazelnut thingies from the snazzy espresso machine. When you were feeling blocked, you’d raid the break room to grab that cool raspberry thriller tisane you liked.

The stuff you put in your mouth is important. Tastebud rituals are crazy embedded in our neural pathways – that’s why many of us still don’t like broccoli, and why comfort food is a thing. And the foods and liquids we use to fuel ourselves create an internal ecosystem that prepare our body to go to work.

Like with your sense of sound, consider what you should be doing with your mouth to optimize your work day. Does your food and drink situation need an upgrade so that it’s objectively better than it is now? Or do you need to start replicating what you used to do at work?

5. Your sense of touch.

When children have behavioral difficulties, one of the first things experts look at is what’s touching them. Kids go nuts when they have wobbly chairs, scratchy tags in their clothes, or uncomfortable shoes. Tactile discomfort can turn saints into demons.

Consider – what’s touching you while you work? Is it what it could be? Look at:

  • Your feet. We tend to get a lot more done when we’re wearing socks and shoes like a grown-up with a job.
  • Your clothes. Are they work clothes that we associate with… work? Or are they slouchy, comfy clothes your body associates with Outlander marathons?
  • Your floor. That cat litter your office smells like? There are little bits of it under your desk.
  • Your chair. People have sued companies and won because the chairs at the office were detrimental to their health. Could you sue you over your chair? Would you win?
  • Your work surface. Many desks are so harsh, they practically end on a knife’s edge. Is it comfortable to type there?

You have to care about your skin, your joints, your spine, and your bones. If they go on strike, you can’t go to work, and if you can’t go to work, you can’t afford that cruise to the Greek Isles.

6. Your sixth sense.

The internet defines your sixth sense as an “intuitive faculty giving awareness not explicable in terms of normal perception”. It’s the things you’re aware of that you can’t pinpoint on any of the first five senses.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I don’t have a lot of love lost for corporate offices. I don’t have great memories of squeezing myself into ugly, polyester office clothes, of office politics, of smelly subway rides. But I do have to give offices one thing. They’re separate from my house.

When I went to Citi or Sprint, I went to work and when I got there, it only felt like work. I didn’t have a constant, nagging sensation that I’d forgotten to pay my cable bill. I didn’t suddenly remember I had to get that book back to my brother. I spent no time at all berating myself for not having bought chicken when it was on sale.

When I started working from home, I stopped going to a place that was dedicated to getting work done and instead, was left with the same nagging sensations I always had at home. When home is where your whole life is, your whole life gets up in your whole business, and it’s hard to get anything done.

If you’re feeling like work isn’t getting enough of you, consider creating a greater separation between your business and the rest of your life. This means something different to everyone, but for a start, consider:

  • Do you have a dedicated space? Somewhere where life can’t get in?
  • Creating separate to-do lists, so “buy milk” doesn’t live in the same place as “invoice client”.
  • Dedicating work computer time, and separating it from life. If you’re not allowed to check the movie times until the work day is over, you might actually find yourself getting some work done in the meantime.

7. Your sense of progress.

Speaking of getting work done, if you’ve ever held a traditional job one of the things you’ll probably remember is that you had a relatively consistent sense of the work that actually got accomplished. If you were at a call center like I was, you were aware that you had a number of completed calls. Or you walked in at the beginning of the day and knew the tasks you were supposed to do and when they were done. And even if they didn’t all get done, you could with reasonable certainty point to where you were in the process.

Same with projects. You didn’t get it all done in a day. You had an idea of what you might be able to get done that day, and you did what you could. But you were always aware that shit was getting done. And at some point you went home, and you knew what you did.

When you work for yourself, however, all that can go out the window. Work becomes “All this stuff I’m doing.” It blurs, becomes less concrete, gets fuzzy. And your sense of progress and / or momentum goes bye-bye. To get it back, create some kind of ritual where you can keep track of what’s getting done.

Create a running list of tasks that you accomplished. Make a little progress bar you can fill in on projects. Send yourself an email every day with what you achieved, just like you were giving your boss an update. You’d be surprised what that might do for your productivity – and more importantly – your sense of time and space.

You can feel so much better about your work environment than you might feel at the moment.

If we pay attention to our senses, they don’t steer us wrong. Give all of your senses the environment they need to thrive, and you just might amaze yourself.

And seriously? Do something about the cat litter.


Things you can do next…