Episode 57: Optimizing Workspace For Productivity, Focus, & Creativity | Huberman Lab

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Key Takeaways

  • It will take about 6 minutes to settle into work and focus: unless you are very stressed or excited about something, don’t expect to be immediately focused the moment you sit/stand to work
  • As you optimize the workspace, the latency period (the time it takes to get focused) will decrease
  • In the first part of your day (0-9 hours after waking), bright lights make for maximum alertness – use bright overhead lights and blue light or ring light in front of you
  • Our cognition follows our visual environment: for detailed analytic work (ideally in Phase I 0-9 hours after waking), work in a lower ceiling environment or put in a hoodie or hat to restrict visual field; for Phase II (9-16 hours after waking creative work), work in high ceiling room or outdoors
  • To be alert and maintain an optimal level of alertness, keep the screen or book at nose level or slightly higher up – ideally while standing or seated
  • For every 45 minutes you are focused on something, take a walk or relax your eyes and dilate your gaze for 5 minutes to avoid fatigue
  • Depending on the day, background noise can be a stimulant or hindrance to focus – but generally, the incessant humming of air conditioners or heaters can increase mental fatigue and decrease cognitive performance
  • Tip to manage office interruptions: if someone enters your office or workspace, acknowledge their presence but don’t shift your body or reorient yourself
  • We weren’t designed to sit all day, but we shouldn’t stand all day either – a combination of about 50/50 is best
  • Active workstations (e.g., cycle or treadmill) can improve attention and cognition for some tasks

Introduction

Dr. Andrew Huberman, Ph.D. is a Professor of Neurobiology and Ophthalmology at Stanford University School of Medicine. His lab focuses on neural regeneration, neuroplasticity, and brain states such as stress, focus, fear, and optimal performance.

Andrew Huberman talks about how to arrange our physical workspace and ourselves in that workspace to make us maximally alert, focused, and productive at home or on the road.

Host: Andrew Huberman (@hubermanlab)

Reminder About Using Phases Of The Day For Productivity

  • To build new habits & behaviors, leverage your body’s natural brain and body rhythms
  • Phases of the day will invoke a shift in mood and mindset that are more conducive to building and keeping habits
  • Phase 1: 0-8 hours after waking up
    • This phase comes with a more alert state which can be heightened by sunlight viewing, caffeine delaying, fasting, etc.
    • Norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine are elevated during this phase
    • Healthy cortisol is also elevated in the brain and bloodstream
    • This is when you want to take on new habits and behaviors that are challenging for you – you are naturally more readily able to engage in activities with a high degree of limbic friction
  • Phase 2: 9-15 hours after waking up
    • Levels of dopamine, epinephrine, and cortisol start to come down
    • Serotonin starts to rise and lends itself to a relaxed state of being – can be enhanced with a warm bath, yoga nidra, ashwagandha
    • Taper the amount of bright light (unless it’s sunlight) & start dimming house lights a bit
    • This is when you want to taper stress level and take on habits and things you are already doing that don’t require a lot of override of limbic friction – e.g., journaling, music
  • Phase 3: 16-24 hours after waking up
    • Keep environment very dark or dim & room temperature low
    • The body needs to drop in temperature to fall asleep & stay asleep
    • If you wake up in the middle of the night, use as little light as possible
    • Deep sleep is critical to wiring neural circuits required for building habits

Workspace Lighting

  • Fundamental variable of workspace optimization:
  • Vision and light are important components to set the brain in a high state of alertness
  • Being in a brightly lit environment can lend itself to increased productivity throughout the day, not just in the morning
  • Work in a space with as much overhead light as is safely possible
  • Lighting tip: during the first 0-9 hours of your day, work in a space with as much overhead light as possible to facilitate the release of dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, and optimal amounts of cortisol
  • A ring light or light pad placed in front of you will also increase alertness and stimulate photons
  • Placing your desk near a window – and opening a window if possible – will stimulate eyes and send “wake up” signal during the first 7-8 hours of the day
  • Around 9-16 hours after waking, start dimming environment: reduce blue light exposure, turn off overhead lights and turn on lamps or other lighting options in the workspace
  • Screen brightness: people have different retinal sensitivity, but you never want it to be painful to look as your screen
  • Around 17-24 hours after waking (shift workers or students): Option 1) limit bright light to just enough that allows you to complete work to keep sleep and metabolism in the best shape possible; Option 2) if you want/need to be very alert, make the environment as bright as possible
    • It’s most ideal to stay awake during the day and sleep at night
    • All-nighter tip: drink a lot of water and don’t let yourself go to the bathroom
  • To nerd out on lighting, check out the app Light Meter

Visual Focus

  • Where you physically place a screen or book in your workspace plays an important role in alertness
  • There’s a relationship between where we look and the level of focus
  • When looking down toward the ground, neurons related to calm and sleepiness are activated
  • Ideally, work while standing or seated, not laying in bed or on the couch
  • Standing and sitting up straight while looking at a screen or book that is elevated will generate maximal levels of alertness
  • You will create maximum alertness, focus, and cognition when you bring your eyes to a narrow point in space – keep visual focus narrow, around the side of the head or right outside eyes
    • Tip: put on a hoodie or wear a hat to slightly restrict the visual window
  • Cathedral effect: thinking becomes smaller and more constricted in tighter visual fields, and vice versa
  • Tip: for Phase II (9-16 hours after waking creative work), work in a high ceiling room or outdoors; for detailed analytic work (ideally in Phase I 0-9 hours after waking), work in a lower ceiling environment or put in hoodie or hat to restrict the visual field

Auditory Environment

  • Listening to particular sounds and in particular, conditions can improve cognition
  • Sometimes we want more background noise, sometimes we want less: our auditory tolerance can change from one day to the next and even fluctuate within the same day
  • Background noise to avoid: the incessant humming of air conditioners or heaters can increase mental fatigue and decrease cognitive performance
  • Even if we’re not registering background noise, our auditory system is processing
  • Working with white, pink, or brown noise can help in spurts of about 45 min but not for hours on end – you’re better off walking or getting sunlight for a few minutes
  • Binaural beats place the brain into a state that is better for learning
  • Binaural beats: playing one sound in one ear and a different sound in the other ear
  • Low-frequency waves put the brain into a relaxed state versus high-frequency soundwaves which put the brain into more alert states
  • Binaural beats (around 40 Hz) have been shown to increase cognition, relaxation, creativity, pain reduction, anxiety reduction

Interruptions & Distractions In Workspace

  • Distractions and things that take away from tasks aren’t just bad in the moment, it takes time to get brain waves back into attention and focus
  • Tip: if someone enters your office or workspace, acknowledge their presence but don’t shift your body or reorient yourself
  • Managing phone distractions: turn off the phone, put the phone on airplane mode, put the phone in a drawer or away from eyesight
  • Freedom is an app that allows you to lock yourself out of the internet to decrease distraction

Is It Better To Sit Or Stand?

  • We weren’t designed to sit all day – but we also weren’t designed to stand all-day
  • Just sitting for 5-8+ hours a day is terrible for us and can impact sleep, neck pain, cardiovascular system, muscular pressure  
  • A combination of sitting and standing throughout the day is best
  • Use boxes or books if you don’t have access to an adjustable standing desk
  • People who decrease sitting time show improvements to shoulder and neck pain, vitality, improvement in cognitive conditioning, and embracing new tasks
  • Tip: spend half of your time standing, half of your time sitting

Active Workstations

  • There don’t seem to be any differences in cognitive tasks between cycling versus walking workstations
  • Active workstations are better for some tasks, worse for others: there appear to be improvements in attention and cognition when using active workstations versus seated – however – verbal memory scores were worse during active workstations
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Notes By Maryann

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