How to Hack Your Physical Environment to Improve Your Mental and Emotional State

As I type right now I am sitting at a table.

On the table is a sketchbook, a pen, some nail clippers, a travel mug, my keys, a knit cap, my laptop, my wireless keyboard and mouse,  and my phone: all the tools I will need to help me a complete my current task…plus a bunch of other stuff.

As I read back that list of items seems long, but the table feels relatively tidy.

I feel the urge to look at my phone.

I have eight tabs open. One of the tabs is my email. I read an email a while ago. I didn’t reply right away, but now I know what I want to say so I want to click over to do that before I forget.



Spotify is playing on my computer and I have stopped several times to change the song because the music got a little distracting.

One of the tabs is YouTube. I should definitely close that one. But I commented on a video and someone replied so I want to see where the conversation goes.

I am making this task much harder than it needs to be.

I should be able to work anywhere. I hate to admit that my powers of concentration and my commitment to this task is so flimsy that I need to resort to all manner of self-manipulation to stay focused and power through.

Sometimes I don’t even feel like doing things that I actually like to do. Getting started with any task can often be uncomfortable; it takes time to for me to warm up, but once I get started I can keep things moving.

What can keep me from keeping things moving are all of the distractions that come into my field of awareness. The distracting sound, the flashing notification, my brain just drifting off.

I’ve learned that one of the best ways to make your mind and emotions work for you rather than against you is to arrange the physical environment where you need to work in such a way that it makes it easy to get started and easier to stay on task. What follows are a few hacks you can use to set yourself up for success.

  1. Lay it Out in Advance

You are not a child, but the part of your brain that holds you back from doing important work sometimes behaves just like a two year-old throwing a tantrum. I remember my early days of fatherhood and the struggle I had some mornings getting my daughter ready for preschool. If I didn’t maintain physical or verbal contact with her during the entire process, our situation would devolve into playtime.

Eventually I figured out that if I let her help me pick out her outfit, pack her bag etc the night before, we would be on the same team in the morning when it was time to get ready.

When you arrive at the space where you are going to start working and everything is all set up and ready to go, you are less likely to devolve into playtime (IG, Facebook, etc) and less likely to negotiate against yourself about what you are going to work on.

Be on your own team.

2. Designate a Place

One of the beautiful things about digital technology is that it allows you to do a wide range of “knowledge work” from virtually anywhere. But just because you can work anywhere doesn’t mean you should. When you have a place that it set aside, specifically for your most important work, that place stores up some of  the energy you have invested and feeds that energy back to you in the form of inspiration.

When you go to work in purpose-focused spaces your productivity will continue to build. But what if you don’t have the luxury of having a designated space to work on your most important work? In that case you can have a collection of items that you set up the same way, or maybe the same playlist that you always listento, anything that you can do to signal to your brain that it is time get to it.

Most importantly, always try to honor the space that you have created. Avoided engaging in time-wasting or unrelated activities in the space where you plan to do focused work. Doing so may undermine the effectiveness of your work.

3. Unplug

It is great to have the world of information at your fingertips. If you have a question, the answer it is just a Google away. But instant access is a double-edged sword. You can go online to find an answer to a specific question and emerge four hours and twenty-five YouTube videos later.

You don’t want to go back to the days when you needed a trip to a library or down to a basement full of file cabinets to find that bit of information, but you may want to avoid the distraction traps that are only a click away.

Here are a few tips:

  • Work analog. If there is a part of your work that you can do on paper, start there. A few minutes sorting out your thoughts in a journal can make a big difference later in the process
  • Try to separate your work into research time and production time. During production time, limit yourself to one browser tab at a time if you are working on a web-based tool.
  • Print out or download reference materials that you need so that you don’t have to open your web browser.
  • Use software to block time wasting sites during times that you have designated to be on task. You have to protect your attention. Nothing builds motivation like momentum, and nothing kills momentum like distraction.

4. Break it Down

When you are working on large, complex projects it is critical to sufficiently break the work down into discrete, manageable tasks and then focus on one task at a time. Multitasking for mundane, routine work may be an effective strategy for some people but often, when you think you are multitasking, what you are really doing is task switching. For example, if you are in a meeting, writing an email, and engaging in a text message exchange, your attention constantly switches between these tasks. Each switch back and forth is exacts a major tax on your cognitive performance and compromises your ability to do your best work.

Once you have your work broken down to the specific task that you are going to focus on, move everything that is not related to that task out of your line of sight. Close those extra tabs, put away those unneeded tools. Create white space on your desktop, at your work station….wherever the magic happens,  you can make room for fresh ideas.

5.Keep Track of Productive Places

It is always useful to keep notes about your work experience in a specific space, with a certain set up or with a set of tools. Note how much you got done during the time that you were working on a task. How much light was in the space? What was the ambient noise? The next time you need to get things done you can use what you have learned to create a space that energizes you and enables your best work.


The next time you need to settle in to get some important work done, apply these strategies and what your productivity and effectiveness soar.