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Setting up the best work environment

2016-09-21

There must be thousands of articles like this, with the myriad ways different people set up their spaces. Lately I've been giving a lot of thought to what makes the perfect workspace for me for working efficiently. I'm a work environment freak, I need to have the best possible space for getting my creative neurons to fire.

So having said that, first things first:

What work are you doing?

The type of work matters a lot. Depending on what I'm doing, I can be somewhat liberal or very strict on my workspace environment and conditions. I'll be talking about digital art, design and development work, and obviously each type of work has its own quirks.

How much space do you need?

How comfortable are you in tight spaces? Do you like more cavernous, empty places? Or maybe tight, comfy and familiar? I'm of two camps here. For artistic and design work, I kind of like having the place I'm most familiar with, with my stuff surrounding me and a good stationary desk. This means no art or design outside the office. Tools matter too. For art and design, I have to work with a mouse. And maybe also a Wacom tablet. So that makes it even harder for me to work on the move.

For development work, however, as it involves mostly typing, I can do it wherever, be it in an office, a sofa, or a bed, or even a coffee shop or a public bench. Thieves may be a problem in public spaces, but in safe places with a lot of people and proper vigilance, it means I'm not tied to an office for that kind of work, which is great. It's a good thing to be able to roam around doing work that you like in different places.

For art production, an iPad Pro is really the thing I'm most looking forward to trying. Being able to use an equivalent to a portable Wacom tablet (maybe even more precise) means I can set up an art studio on the go. I really hope some good apps are already in development for it.

Light

On the subject of light, it's important to have your monitor set at the right brightness, you don't want to be blinded by a harsh white light while sitting in the dark. It's better to have some dim lights around if you work at night, and if you work by day, have some curtains for the ability to actually being able to see what's in the monitor.

Color temperature of the light also matters. If you're working on a room with artificial lighting, chances are your lights have a lower color temperature than your screen, being warmer while the screen becomes a glowing blue rectangle in front of you. There's an app for the Mac called F.lux that changes the colors of your screen to warmer colors as the day comes to an end, but it may go too wild and turn the whole screen orange. Use it sparingly, and it will be gentler in your eyes. On iOS, Apple developed a feature called Night Shift that does exactly the same as F.lux on the Mac, but less extreme, and on the 9.7 inch iPad Pro, it actually uses light sensors to capture the current light color temperature of the environment and apply it to the screen, so it always matches. The result is making the screen look like a sheet of white paper under the current light.

Sound

Maybe it's the loud traffic noise outside, or some construction happening nearby. Maybe it's a humming fluorescent tube or an annoying finger-drumming coworker. There's people who can deal with working in a noisy environment, others don't. I know I can't.

In my old office, traffic noise from outside was a real issue. Cars and buses roamed constantly on a cobblestone street, one of the few left in the city from ancient times. We were located just at an intersection which only doubled the problem (and was cause of a few accidents). The road noise was so high, we couldn't open the windows. This caused another problem: heat. It got unconfortably hot inside, which ended up causing me some nasty headaches. It also got smelly fast, specially in summer (plus some people seemed to reject the idea of deodorant).

Traffic noise was a problem because of volume. I actually suffered from tinnitus during that time, attributable to the constant high level of noise.

Another noise problem is with repeating or annoying sounds. You know, humming, whistling, rattling, finger-drumming, that sort of deal. It's nice working with other people, and usually that stuff is normal, idle human artistic expression. But when you're hearing it all day, it starts to hurt. You despise the sound while it's there and live in fear while it's silent, because you know in any moment it'll start again.

Suffice to say, noise is a real problem and can make you crazy or physically ill. Avoid it by moving into a better insulated location, using headphones or buying soundproof curtains if there's too much traffic noise. And ban finger-drumming in the office. Your ears will thank you and you'll keep your sanity.

By the way, some people use backgrond white noise, like that from TV static, or a fan, the sound of rain or an airplane interior, to mask exterior sounds. The way they work is, white noise is basically random soundwaves in the whole range of frequencies all at once, so any distinct frequencies from outside get drowned in the whole, and the ears manage to stabilize everything. There are several resources online like YouTube where you can find huge loops (10 hours) of these sounds for using while working. I've tried them and can say they kind of work, but with the caveat that you would be receiving constant sound pressure in your eardrums for hours at a time. When you take the headphones out, it feels weird. I'm not sure of the long-term effects of using theses sounds may be, I'd need to investigate.

On my particular case, when coding, there's a few soundtracks I constantly use (the background music of SimCity 4). It's really weird how productive I get while listening to it. Granted, it's the soundtrack for a city building game, not an action packed one, and that really helps. There's a lot of variety in the individual tracks, they're long, and really soothing. I think that's what works for me, and also the fact that I've heard it enough times that I memorized almost every note, so my brain doesn't have to work on analyzing what I'm hearing, instead following it like it's on rails. Again, mine is an extremely particular scenario, maybe you'll get the same by listening to metal, who knows.

What I can't hear while coding is songs with lyrics. It's like I can't use the logical part of my brain while focusing on the words I'm hearing. I guess I have a single vocal processor after all. Curiously, that doesn't happen with songs in languages I can't understand. So I listen to Enya a lot too.

Schedule

Finally we get to the time management portion of the setup. How many hours of work are good enough? Opinions vary wildly, but the popular idea is that you're better off working for fewer productive hours than droning through the day without doing any real work. Workaholics are a problem, to themselves, to their employers and to their coworkers. They're on track to burn out, they cost their employers more on overtime pay, and they make their other coworkers uncomfortable for working normal time. They feel like martyrs going on without sleep, but at the end of the day there's nothing to show for it.

My schedule is not what it used to be. My current job demands ten hours a day, and I think that's way too much. There's nothing to be gained by stretching idle hours. Better look up to models that work, specially in some European countries, like Germany, where workdays are shorter but really intense. I think that's the way to go.

What's really important, I think, is to avoid interruptions. Getting into a mental state for productivity takes some time, and if you're interrupted it takes more time to get into it again. That's why some people, myself included, work better by night, or when there's no one else at the office.

So, what's your ideal work environment. I'd love to know. Email me so we can get some ideas.

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