If you were my client asking for ideas on how to improve focus at work, the first question I would ask you is, “What does your office look like?” You may wonder, “Why does it matter?” It matters because our physical work environment impacts our nervous system and therefore influences our ability to focus. If your nervous system is distracted by—or uncomfortable in—the space around you, it becomes unsettled (dysregulated). When your nervous system is dysregulated, it compromises your ability to think clearly and focus on the task at hand. From the lighting and decor to the temperature of the room, your body takes its cues about whether or not it can relax and focus from the spaces you inhabit. The good news is that if you create a work environment that is comfortable and supports nervous system regulation, making you better able to think clearly, stay focused, be decisive, and be more productive.
Light Bulb about Light Bulbs
I was recently coaching an attorney seeking tools to help him feel motivated to work at the office. His firm requires him to be physically present at the office at least 50% of the work week. He found himself resistant to going in. During the pandemic, he got used to working at home and now feels more comfortable working at home than at the office. I asked him to describe the difference between his home office and his firm office. His home office, he said, surrounds him with his favorite things: pets, plants, photos of his family, and art. He also has things that support his physical comfort and relaxation like floor lamps for soft lighting, a sunny window, and a couch with blankets. “However,” he said, “my office at the firm looks like a ‘prison cell’—painted gray with no decor and overhead fluorescent lighting that agitates my eyes.” At that moment, a light bulb went off. “Oh, now I get it,” he said after doing the comparison, “I haven’t taken any time at all to get comfortable at work. No fuzzy blankets. No furry friends. No soft white light bulbs.” As we walked through the comparison, he realized that while it may not be possible to bring his dog to work (though sometimes it actually is!), it’s possible to have most everything else from his cozy home office at work.
Lost in My Mind?
As lawyers and judges, we often find ourselves absorbed in our heads, bogged down by endless responsibilities and deadlines. It can be easy to get consumed in serving others and lose sight of the importance of caring for ourselves, our bodies, and the space around us. Taking time to decorate your office may seem like a luxury when there are case matters pressing. And yet, if you look around your office and see bare walls and shades of gray, it may be a reflection that you’re treating yourself like a bodiless brain machine. Check out the tips below and see how your body responds when you tend to it. For little cost and minimal time, you may get a big mental return on your physical investment.
Which of these office decorating tips is most interesting to you? They all promote nervous system regulation and mental clarity.
1. Consider the state of your office. Is it cluttered and chaotic, or clean and organized? For some, a cluttered or cramped space can increase feelings of stress and anxiety, while an organized and spacious environment can promote a sense of calm and clarity. Take time to declutter and arrange your office in a way that promotes order and tranquility. Get rid of unnecessary items, especially obsolete papers, and use storage solutions to keep things organized. Schedule a regular time on your calendar to clear and organize your space, as paper and other clutter tends to accumulate over time in a way that you may not notice. Once you have made the change, gauge whether there is an impact on your ability to concentrate.
2. Assess the overall office comfort. Is your office furnished in a way that promotes good ergonomics and physical comfort? Investing in ergonomic furniture and accessories can help to reduce physical strain and promote better posture. Do you have a supportive office chair, a sit-to-stand desk, and an ergonomic keyboard? Having a chair that offers spinal support and allows the option to stand when working creates more space in your abdomen, allowing you to breathe more deeply. Deep, full breaths oxygenate the brain, and improve nervous system regulation and cognitive functioning. In addition, do you have comfortable furniture in your office away from your desk in which you can reset? Having somewhere comfortable to sit or recline encourages taking mental breaks during your day, which allows you to tackle work rejuvenated. A bonus is that it also makes your workspace more inviting for colleagues and clients.
3. Pay attention to the lighting and temperature. Natural light is beneficial for both mood and productivity. If possible, position your desk so you can look out a window. If natural light is not an option, consider investing in high-quality artificial lighting so that your office feels light and bright. Experiment with desk and floor lamps instead of overhead lighting. Make sure that your office is a comfortable temperature; being too hot or cold is agitating for the nervous system. If you don’t have control over the temperature at your office, can you bring in a soft throw blanket or a cozy sweater or a space heater to stay warm, or a fan or water cooler to stay cool?
4. Examine office layout. Is your desk positioned in a way that allows you to see the door or are you facing a wall? Facing the door can help your nervous system relax as you can see who’s coming and going. If facing the door is distracting, experiment with closing the door or, if you have a glass door, cover it with an attractive window covering. You may want to try different layouts and furniture sizes to find what works best in the space, or find somewhere outside of your office to store files if your office feels cramped. You can read up on office “feng shui” or hire someone trained in office design to help you lay out your furniture for the best flow.
5. Incorporate personal touches. Do you have a few of your favorite things at your office? Seeing personal items at your office helps to create a sense of familiarity and comfort which relaxes the nervous system. This can include artwork, photos, or small decorative objects that have personal meaning to you. Be mindful not to overcrowd your space, as too many personal items can add clutter and be distracting.
6. Consider your senses. Our senses are in charge of nervous system regulation, so pay attention to what your eyes, ears, and nose are sensing at work. For example, color therapy specialists have found that wall color and decor impact our mood and motivation. Colors like blue and green promote calm and relaxation, while warm colors like red and orange can increase energy. Consider using a color scheme that feels best for you for the atmosphere in which you want to work. Have you noticed if you work better in silence or with sound? If you prefer sound, do you work better with music, a noise machine, or a bubbling fountain? If you prefer music, it may be useful to create different playlists for different tasks. If you prefer quiet, do you have ear plugs or sound proofing? Are you sensitive to smell? If so, you may find that a small essential oil diffuser fills your office with a scent that helps you relax, such as lavender, or keeps you awake, such as peppermint.
7. Include nature. Incorporating natural elements into your office design can also support nervous system regulation and promote a sense of calm. The presence of nature has been shown to have a soothing effect on the brain by reducing feelings of stress and anxiety while improving your ability to think. Place a small easy-to-care-for potted plant on your desk, use natural materials like wood and stone when decorating, and if you like the sound, run a small decorative fountain. When possible, open the windows to allow for fresh air flow.
Start Small and Get Help
Decorating your office for nervous system regulation is a process of trial and error. What works for someone else may not work for you. If you feel overwhelmed by the idea of decorating and don’t know where to start, get help! You may have a friend or family member who would love to offer creative inspiration. If not, hire a decorator and a decluttering/organizing professional to assist. You don’t have to do it all at once; calendar it for a few hours at a time, or plan an all-office beautification project as a team building exercise. Start small and track your progress and the impact of your space on your nervous system regulation, focus, and productivity over time. Think of your office as more than just a place to work. It is an outward representation of who you are (and how you treat yourself) to those you work with and serve. It should also be a space where you feel comfortable and focused. Incorporating these mindful decorating techniques into your office can help create both a peaceful and productive workspace. With a little bit of intention and effort, you can create an office environment that supports your well-being and helps you thrive in your legal practice.
Laura Mahr is a North Carolina and Oregon lawyer and the founder of Conscious Legal Minds LLC, providing well-being consulting, training, and resilience coaching for attorneys and law offices nationwide. Through the lens of neurobiology, Laura helps build strong leaders, happy lawyers, and effective teams. Her work is informed by 13 years of practice as a civil sexual assault attorney, 25 years as a teacher and student of mindfulness and yoga, and six years studying neurobiology and neuropsychology with clinical pioneers. She can be reached through consciouslegalminds.com.