5 Science-Based Steps to Improve Your Workspace

Thank you for joining the Huberman Lab Podcast Neural Network—a once-a-month newsletter with science and science-related tools for everyday life. This newsletter aims to provide you with some actionable information in a condensed form. It relates to a recent episode of the Huberman Lab Podcast, “Optimizing Workspace for Productivity, Focus, & Creativity.”

Regardless of where we work—at home, in an office, in cafes, or elsewhere—we can all do a few simple things to our work environment to optimize our productivity. Below is a short list of the most effective things—none of which require purchasing any products or equipment. Anyone can use these tools to:

  1. Maintain alertness and focus longer.
  2. Improve posture and reduce pain (neck, back, pelvic floor, etc).
  3. Tap into specific states of mind (creativity, logic, etc.) for the sake of work.

1. Sit or Stand?

Many people favor standing desks. Others prefer to sit. The data on this (yes, there are quality peer-reviewed studies on the matter; we discuss those and link to them in the Huberman Lab Podcast episode on optimizing your workspace) indicate that the best approach is: both! It is best to arrange your desk and workspace so that you can work sitting for some period of time—10-30 minutes or so for most people, and then shift to work standing for 10-30 minutes, and then go back to sitting. Research also shows that it’s a good idea to take a 5-15 minute stroll after every 45 minutes of work. You do not need to purchase a standing desk. A very accomplished academic (MD, PhD, member of the National Academy of Sciences) colleague has maintained tremendous productivity for decades by simply placing a box and a few books on their desk to create a simple, effective sit-stand desk. I use a shallow angle drafting table and then move to a regular desk and back again approximately every 30 minutes. There is evidence that such a sit-stand approach can reduce neck and shoulder and back pain and even help augment some of the positive effects of exercise—which we should all be doing too, of course.

A note about treadmill and cycling desks: 

Active workstations are better for some tasks but worse for others. Improvements in attention and cognition can be observed in people using active workstations versus seated workstations. However, verbal memory scores were worse in people using active workstations. 

2. Time It Right

We are not the same person across the different hours of the day, at least not neurochemically. I call the first part of your day (~0-8 hours after waking up) “Phase 1.” During this phase, the chemicals norepinephrine, cortisol, and dopamine are elevated in your brain and body. Alertness can be further heightened by sunlight viewing, caffeine and fasting. Phase 1 is ideal for analytic “hard” thinking and any work that you find particularly challenging. It isn’t just about getting the most important stuff out of the way; it is about leveraging your natural biology toward the best type of work for the biological state you are in. 

Phase 2”: is ~9-16 hours after waking. At this time, serotonin levels are relatively elevated, which lends itself to a somewhat more relaxed state of being—optimal for brainstorming and creative work. 

Phase 3”: ~17-24 hours after waking up is when you should be asleep or try to sleep. During this phase, do no hard thinking or work unless, of course, you must (cramming for an exam or deadline comes to mind), keep your environment dark or very dim and the room temperature low (your body needs to drop in temperature to fall asleep and stay asleep). 

3. Place Your Screen (and Vision) in the Right Location

There’s a relationship between where we look and our level of alertness. When looking down toward the ground, neurons related to calm and sleepiness are activated. Looking up does the opposite. This might seem wild, but it makes sense based on the neural circuits that control looking up or down. 

Standing and sitting up straight while looking at a screen or book that is elevated to slightly above eye level will generate maximal levels of alertness. To get your screen at or above eye level and not work while looking down at your screen may take a bit of configuring your workspace, but it’s worth it for the benefits to your mind and work.

4. Get the Background (Sounds) Right for Optimal Work Output

Some people like to work in silence, whereas others prefer background noise. Some kinds of background noise are particularly good for our work output. Working with white, pink, or brown noise in the background can be good for work bouts of up to 45 minutes but not for work bouts that last hours. So, use it from time to time. These are easy to find (and zero-cost) on YouTube or in various apps (search by “whitepink, or brown noise”). 

Binaural beats are a neat science-supported tool to place the brain into a better state for learning. As the name suggests, binaural beats consist of one sound (frequency) being played in one ear and a different sound frequency in the other ear. It only works with headphones. Binaural beats (around 40 Hz) have been shown to increase certain aspects of cognition, including creativity and may reduce anxiety. The exact mechanisms are still under investigation, but the effects are impressive. I review the data in detail here. 40 Hz binaural beats can be found in various apps, many of which are zero-cost.

5. Get the Room Right 

There is an interesting effect of workspace optimization called the “Cathedral Effect,” in which thinking becomes “smaller”—more focused on analytic processing, when we are in small visual fields. The opposite is also true. In short, working in high ceiling spaces elicits abstract thoughts and creativity, whereas working in low ceiling spaces promotes detailed work. Even relatively small differences (a two-foot discrepancy in ceiling height) have been shown to elicit such differences. The takeaway: consider using different locations: rooms, buildings, indoors or outdoors to help access specific brain states and the types of work they favor.

Conclusions

These are just some ways to optimize your workspace and of course, people differ in their ability to tolerate clutter, noise, etc. Some people find they need silence early in the day and love to work to music in the later day, or vice versa, but these five tools are among the top science-supported ones that I believe all people can benefit from experimenting with.

New episodes of the Huberman Lab Podcast are out each Monday on YouTubeApple PodcastsSpotify and all major podcast platforms. Please subscribe to those channels. 

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Thank you for your interest in science!

Best wishes,
Andrew

Disclaimer: The Huberman Lab Podcast is for general informational purposes only and does not constitute the practice of medicine, nursing or other professional health care services, including the giving of medical advice, and no doctor/patient relationship is formed. The use of information on this podcast or materials linked from this podcast is at the user’s own risk. The content of this podcast is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Users should not disregard or delay in obtaining medical advice for any medical condition they may have and should seek the assistance of their health care professionals for any such conditions.


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