Why do we care about being productive? What is productivity anyway? As individuals we probably don’t care about our economic contribution to Gross Domestic Product, but we do care about doing certain things. We don’t just care about getting things done for work. We also care about experiencing life and the world around us. Being productive is not just about finding ways to make more money. It is more importantly about finding ways to pack more meaning and joy into our day to day lives.
“Productivity is being able to do things that you were never able to do before.” — Franz Kafka
So, how can we design our homes to help us pack more meaning and joy into our day to day lives? This is similar to designing our homes for creativity, but it is more about facilitating well-being and habits.
There are two ways to think about designing productivity into our homes. The first way is to think about how we enable and improve our baseline well-being by controlling the environmental factors that influence how we feel. The second way is to think about how we enable productive habits.
— — — — Designing for Well-being — — — —
We don’t often think about the environmental factors in our homes, but they are vital to improving our well-being and therefore also our productivity. The U.S. Green Building Council’s Center for Green Schools has outlined a number of ways in which buildings impact our health, wellness, and performance. In their 2012 report, The Impact of School Buildings on Student Health and Performance, the Center lays out a roadmap for understanding how the design of the buildings where we live, work, and learn can enable our productivity. While the report is focused on schools, it is instructive for how we design our homes. The most relevant environmental factors identified are:
Daylighting — “…[There is] a strong relationship between cognitive skill improvements and classroom daylight conditions. Skylights and large windows allow daylight into green schools, which improves student wellness and academic performance.”
Acoustics — “…an environment to lessen distractions and encourages participation by incorporating features such as high-quality acoustical ceiling tiles, lined ductwork and heating and cooling systems with appropriately placed vents designed to lower background noise…”
Thermal Comfort — “Comfortable indoor temperatures enhance productivity and keep students more alert.”
Indoor air quality — “…Improving environmental air quality promotes teacher well-being. In a survey of 500 teachers in New York State, more than 10 percent reported negative impacts on their ability to teach effectively due to headaches, drowsiness, eye and throat irritation, congestion and other symptoms caused by dust reservoirs, moisture problems and other irritants… indoor air quality also has direct effects on student achievement.”
How we design our homes can also have an impact on our emotions, which is of course related to our ability to be productive. In a study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, researchers explored design characteristics including form, height & enclosure, furniture style, and materiality to see what impact visual properties of interior built environments had on emotion. The research showed clear ways in which design influences our productivity. Design can influence how long we stay in one place, our heart rate and sweat responses, and even our hormone levels — all of which contribute to how productive we can be in a space.
Some environmental factors in our homes are out of our control. However, just knowing how environmental factors impact our well-being allows us to alter our day-to-day activities such that we are living, working, and learning in healthier spaces that increase our productivity.
— — — — — Designing for Habits — — — — —
James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, has written extensively on how we develop good habits and break bad ones. One of his primary assertions is that our living, learning, and working environments have a choice architecture designed into them. Whether it is intentional or not, all of the spaces that we operate in have some underlying system that influences our minute to minute choices, and therefore our productivity.
“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” — James Clear
Architects design habits into buildings all the time. Whether it is designing the placement of a kitchen or designing the proximity of certain spaces to each other or simply the way a door opens into a space, design decisions influence our habits. Google famously designed their offices to optimize the number of chance encounters in the workplace, which is a perfect example of designing for a behavior-driven outcome.
James Clear identifies a handful of design-driven strategies to enable good habits, which translates to higher productivity. Here are three of James Clear’s strategies that relate particularly well to designing a home to foster productivity:
Understand your triggers — “…By sprinkling triggers throughout your surroundings, you increase the odds that you’ll think about your habit throughout the day. Make sure the best choice is the most obvious one. Making a better decision is easy and natural when the cues for good habits are right in front of you.”
Automate good decisions — “Whenever possible, design an environment that makes good decisions for you. For example, buying smaller plates can help you lose weight by deciding portion size for you. A study from Brian Wansink at Cornell University found that people eat 22 percent less food by switching from 12-inch dinner plates to 10-inch plates.”
Get in the flow — “…by designing an environment where good habits “get in the flow” of your normal behaviors. For example, if you want to practice a musical instrument, you could place it in the middle of your living room. Similarly, you are more likely to go to the gym if it is literally on the way home from work than if the gym is only five minutes away, but in the opposite direction of your commute. Whenever possible, design your habits so they fit in the flow of your current patterns.”
In this new era of remote work and online learning, it is more important than ever to design our homes to be places where we can be productive in ways that give our lives joy and meaning. Here are three sets of questions to help you do exactly that:
- In what ways are you trying to be more productive? What are the things that you are trying to do more of? What can you do more of to add more joy and meaning to your life?
- How does your home as it is now impact your well-being? Are there little things that you can do to alter the environmental factors in your home? What rooms do you feel the best in and why?
- How does the design of your home influence your habits? Is there a normal flow between spaces that you can utilize? Are there places in your home where you could add cues to encourage good habits?