Hack your environment to stimulate creativity and focus

Image by Inhabitat is licensed under CC by 2.0

Hack Your Environment to Stimulate Creativity and Focus

This year, I have been working towards making my workspace a place that promotes creativity and productivity. Little did I know, my environment was having a huge effect on my output. This week, I am going to share some strategies I have implemented in my life that has boosted my focus and creativity, increasing both the quality and quantity of my work. Feel free to adapt these strategies to fit your working preferences, habits, and routines.

Two Types of Thinking: Creative and Critical

We use many different types of thinking every day, often employing multiple styles in tandem. For this blog post, I am going to boil them down to two: creative thinking and critical thinking (if you want to know more about the different “types” within these two categories, check out Adam Jorlen's Five Types of Creative Thinking and the WSJ’s How to Develop 5 Critical Thinking Types).

Creative thinking is concerned with idea generation, first drafts, and abstract problem solving. On the other side is critical thinking, which is more analytical, focused, and organized. Both are important for working on complex tasks, and both require a different environment. Throughout this post, I will make recommendations for each type of thinking, explaining why the environment matters and how to maximize results.

Green, Blue, and Red

Image  by  BAKOKO  is licensed under  CC by 2.0

Image by BAKOKO is licensed under CC by 2.0

Green: According to a study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, people who were exposed to the color green outperformed other groups in creativity. Green is an important color to our natural roots, humans depended on green plants for survival because it signaled food, directions, safety, medicine. In fact, the human eye can distinguish between 2,000 shades of green, but only 100 shades of red.

Blue: Similar results have been linked to the color blue, and researchers believe this is because the color is linked to the sky and the ocean, which evoke feelings that are calming, safe, and open.

Red: On the critical thinking side, the peer-reviewed journal Science published an article that links the color red to precision and analysis. Those who were exposed to the color red out performed on tests of recall and attention to detail, having an easier time remembering words, and having less errors in their spelling and punctuation.

Ways to add color to your life:

  • Choose your computer background with a greater amount of the desired color

  • Shine green, blue, or red lights on a white wall (depending on what type of thinking you are trying to evoke)

  • Hang curtains (or bedsheets) in an area you want to be affected by a certain tone

  • Use picture frames (or other desk objects) to create the parameters of  your intended outcome



Dimming the lights aids your creative thinking. According to Medical Daily, “simply dimming the lights, or even telling a story about the dark, can spark that creativity.” This is because dim lights heightens the perceived freedom of constraints. When we are in the dark, we suspend judgement and feel more open to creative possibilities.

Working on the other end of the spectrum, brighter lights foster better results in critical and analytical thinking. According to an article in Journal of Environmental Psychology, those working in moderately lit and bright rooms fared better on tasks that required analysis and implementation. Simply put, brighter light levels promote more focus on detail.

Here’s a way to remember it: write in the dark, edit in the light.


Noise level

According to a study by the Journal of Consumer Research, those who were exposed to moderate levels of noise around 70 decibels (a similar noise level to a coffee shop or a television in the background), came up with the most original ideas. Those who were exposed to sound levels of 85 decibels or higher (the noise level of an idling bulldozer) fared the worst. Those who were asked to come up with ideas in silence fared better than the group at 85 decibels, but the ideas were not as creative as the groups exposed to 70 decibels.  

This, however, works the best for creative thinking. When it comes to critical thinking, like proofreading or doing your taxes, Dr. Ravi Mehta says that a quiet environment fosters better results.

Personally, I have found music like Brian Eno's Thursday Afternoon to be good for concentration and artists like Tom Waits for idea creation. It’s doesn’t have to be “music”. There are also loads of cool videos like this one that puts you directly in a cafe at the comfort of your own personal workspace.

To keep the last two sections straight, think of it this way:

When creating ideas, dim the light and turn up the music.

When revising ideas, turn on the lights and turn down the music.


Not too hot, not too cold

According to research from Cornell University, raising the temperature from 20 °C (68 °F) to 25 °C (77 °F) reduces errors and increases output. Alan Hedge, PhD, CPE, found that this temperature change reduced errors by 44% while increasing the number of keystroke output by 150%. As a result, the savings was about $2.00 per worker per hour in lost productivity. If your company has 20 employees, you may be operating at a loss of $40/hour. That’s enough to hire one, maybe two, more full time employees.


Open Spaces

Spaces that have the appearance of being large and open have the best influence on creativity. The openness of the room literally allows one to be open with their ideas. For more detailed information, check out The Influence of Ceiling Height: The Effect of Priming on the Type of Processing That People Use published in Journal of Consumer Research.


Eye Strain/Fatigue

If you are like most American adults, you are staring at some form of a screen for many hours throughout the day (according to Nielsen, the average American adult spends 11 hours per day on gadgets). This invariably leads to visual strain (and walking around like a cartoon as if you just got your eyes dilated). Until we fix or change our screens, we are going to have to deal with glare.

One nifty app that works well is “F.lux”. This is a free downloadable application that changes your screen brightness based on the time of day.

Image  via lifehacker.com  clickthough  to article

Image via lifehacker.com clickthough to article

You can also use the 20-20-20 rule. This rule suggest that after every 20 minutes, the computer user should take a break for at least 20 seconds and look at objects that are 20 feet away. This is easy to integrate into your day with an online stopwatch. You can double on this by setting a productivity goal, planning to reach an  accomplishment before the alarm goes off.

Other tips include covering reflective surfaces, using indirect lighting whenever possible, and maximizing natural light. If that all fails, you can always invest in some computer glasses :-)

Creativity Begets Creativity

Image  by  nevermindtheend  is  licensed under  CC by 2.0

Image by nevermindtheend is licensed under CC by 2.0

Prime your creative muscles. According to Nancy Rivenburgh, a professor in Communications at the University of Washington who teaches classes on creativity, our output is primed by our input: “When people visit an art exhibit, pay attention to public art, go to a concert, watch a chef’s demonstration, listen to a street musician, or view prize-winning photography online, it enhances their own capacity to be creative.” You can use this to your advantage when you are engineering your workspace. Place stimulating pictures in your workspace: research suggests that abstract visual images--such as geometric patterns and shapes--and drawings or photos of nature prompt the most creative thinking. In addition, you can improve your creative thinking by taking breaks to watch video clips of others practicing their art. Finally, if you’re working on a tough problem and need a break, take a break from your workspace to check out local art and music events to prime your mind. If you spend an afternoon working at a cafe, take some time to look  at the art hanging on the walls (because believe it or not, the art pieces may inspire you to connect the dots in your own work).

I hope these ideas inspire you to reengineer or decorate your office to culture an environment of creative and critical thinking. My desire is that you will gain the same results I have experienced, and you will stimulate your own goals with creativity and focus.

More than luck, friends!

Andrew J. Wilt

SEI Analyst

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