As knowledge workers, we spend most of our working hours processing information, solving problems and making decisions. These activities inevitably clutter our headspace and deplete our mental energy, with stress, distractions, discomfort and multitasking only making things worse. However, by better understanding how mental clutter builds up and how it can be cleaned out, we can tailor our work environment and shift our habits to support keeping our mind fresh throughout the day.
In today’s knowledge economy, we need to deal with complex situations, think and communicate with intelligence and clarity, and take action in alignment with the goals of the project, team and business. To do well, we need a clear headspace, high physical and mental energy, and full presence.
But maintaining a productive state in our hectic work lives is a real challenge, as myriad forces in the workplace – such as discomfort, distractions, overload and pressures of work – test us and deplete our mental resources. Our mental resources (including willpower, attention, information processing and decision making) are finite, and can run out fast if we don’t look after them.
What does ‘mental clutter’ look like?
When the negative influences we are bombarded with are not managed well, the impact on our psychology and behaviour can be dramatic.
With an overloaded brain we tend to work more slowly than usual and make more errors. We find it difficult to pay attention and to focus, and we are less creative. We lose our sense of control, and become anxious and irrational. We juggle between tasks even when we don’t need to, and set the wrong priorities. We make poor decisions or no decisions at all.
We may spend most of our working hours being busy trying to keep up with demands, only ending up exhausted, but without having progressed much with our commitments. In this state we are likely to create more problems than solutions.
Good workplace design can help
While we may perceive that our main problem is having too much to do in too little time, our real problem is that we waste our mental power recklessly. So our real challenge is to learn to treat our mental capacity as a precious – and limited – resource, and look after it wisely.
While we can’t escape all the negative influences, a well-designed workplace can help preserve our mental energy to a significant extent, and also offer opportunities to refresh our mind during the day.
But before talking about space design, we need to first understand …
How does mental clutter build up?
We overload our brain with information, and expect too much from it
Easy access to information has major drawbacks: we need to deal with competing demands on our attention, make sense of a vast amount of information quickly, and make many decisions each day, usually under time pressure.
Technology also allows us to find instant escape from our immediate problems through the click of a mouse, so it’s no surprise that pointless multitasking and task switching have become widespread. These habits are not only unproductive, but can quickly send our brain into mental overload.
Sometimes we need to work in a way that’s not natural to us – using tools we find awkward to work with, in a room that doesn’t help us get into our flow, at an hour of the day when our mind would rather slow down. These little struggles also take up mental energy.
When we hit a mental block, we often try to push through instead of taking a break, and when we do take a break, we often choose activities (e.g. surfing the internet or cleaning out our personal inbox) that clutter our mind even further instead of refreshing it.
We have many negative thoughts and feelings
Negative feelings such as fear, worry or anxiety all create some form of stress. Too much stress inhibits the optimal functioning of our body and mind; it narrows our arteries and our field of vision, and limits our attention span, along with our ability to solve problems. Negative emotions can also be all-encompassing, making it difficult to focus on anything else.
There are many sources of stress in a workplace. Lack of privacy and the intrusion of personal space are familiar issues for anyone who has ever worked in a traditional open office.
Trying to keep up with the demands of work can be overwhelming. We also need to deal with ‘bad news’ that comes in many forms. It can be an email about losing a highly anticipated job, an upset client’s phone call, a wrong delivery from a supplier, or a confrontation with a colleague who thrives on conflict.
We are exposed to lots of distractions
Constant distractions not only waste time but also impair our mental acuity while making us exhausted and stressed.
Noise, bad quality lighting, annoying glare, unpleasant temperature, uncomfortable furniture and odd odours are all common distractions in workplaces that make it difficult to concentrate, and at the same time, trigger negative emotions.
Most workspaces today are designed to promote as much interaction as possible. In a collaborative environment our colleagues may approach us and interrupt our train of thought so often that we simply can’t get our head around the task at hand.
How can we slow down the build up of mental clutter?
Once we are conscious of these problems, some of the solutions are self-evident. We need to create work environments that are spacious, comfortable and ergonomic, which minimise acoustic and visual distractions, feel safe and secure, and provide opportunities for everyone to find privacy and quiet as needed.
A diversified, flexible work environment with a range of different work settings can address many of the issues discussed. It gives people choice and control over where and how they work, and may even allow them to configure their environment to best suit their needs and work style. A strategically zoned floor layout also helps manage noise by keeping quiet spaces, medium intensity areas, and the most dynamic team spaces away from each other.
For certain tasks it can be useful to restrict access to phone and internet (and perhaps also other forms of technology), reducing our options for multitasking and saving us from distractions as well as bad news while we are trying to focus.
Provide sufficient storage space for files, so that people can keep all documents out of sight that are not related to the task at hand. If you use a project tracking board, make sure it only shows what’s relevant to the day’s work, not a full list of overwhelming tasks to be completed over the next year.
Create a system where you and your team can give each other a visible signal indicating whether it is a good time to be approached or you’re in a ‘bubble’ and should not be disturbed.
Create easy-to-access informal meeting areas that invite people to talk to each other face-to-face instead of half-heartedly taking part in never-ending online discussions.
How can we clear out mental clutter and refresh our thinking?
Let’s accept that clutter will eventually build up, one way or another. So here are 10 quick ways to refresh your mind during the day:
1. Do something that makes you happy. Happiness is a biological process which makes our brain function better, as it expands our information-processing capacity and activates the learning centre. It opens up our minds to new ideas and opportunities, and raises our intelligence, creativity, and energy levels. Most activities in this list are great happiness boosters.
2. Break the loop. It’s nearly impossible to find solutions to a problem while fixated on it. So when you find yourself in a mental loop, step away from it, both literally and figuratively. Shift your posture (for example stand up if you were sitting), but even better, shift your place of work. It will help you open up your mind and look at things from a different angle.
3. Take breaks as often as you need to. But whatever you do in your break, make sure that it does help you recharge. Avoid activities that put the same demand on your mind as your work does, such as taking in new information, making decisions, and juggling between tasks.
4. Exercise, or move your body in some ways – this will also keep your brain in motion. Physical movement increases blood flow to the brain and enhances brain function. It decreases stress, lifts mood, enhances our intellectual skills, and prepares our brain for optimal learning.
5. Give your brain down time. Meditation is a great restorative activity, especially after doing intellectual work. And sometimes the best thing you can do is allow your mind to wander. (Research shows that mind-wandering can greatly increase our success in solving creative problems.)
6. Take a nap. Scientists believe that sleeping clears out the synapses (nerve cell connections) in our brain; that’s why we start each day fresh.
7. Immerse yourself in nature. Although this might be difficult in the workplace, find or create a spot that looks and feels natural in some ways or reminds you of nature. In nature it’s easier to get in tune with ourselves, and our ideas tend to flow more freely. Even just looking at artworks of nature can help.
8. Socialise. Feeling that we are part of a vibrant, supportive community expands our personal resources; it makes us more confident and optimistic. Also, having a relaxed chat and just releasing our thoughts helps put things into perspective.
9. Play, laugh and have fun. Playing and humour are probably the fastest ways to open up the mind and see things from new angles. Playful activities also help us to learn better, solve problems (including workplace conflicts), and connect with our workmates.
10. Drink and eat well. Once I asked my chiropractor, “what is the secret to keeping our mind fresh throughout the day?” His answer was: physical movement, hydration, and even blood sugar levels. What does it mean in the workplace? Apart from getting out of our chairs as much as possible, we need to drink lots of water and eat healthy nutritious food.
A well-designed work environment can make it easier for you and your teams to do any of these mind-cleansing activities and to develop the habit of consciously looking after your headspace. You may find that not only your productivity will improve, but also your health, happiness, and your relationship with work.