Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

A Place to Think

office design to enhance cognitive performance

Fall is almost here (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) and with autumn comes a renewed focus on home offices - either as places to do school work or the professional work that we've been minimizing during the summer.

  • How should you design your home office space to enhance your cognitive performance?Cut out the red. Red may seem a great color to get mental energy flowing, but recent research indicates that it should be avoided in office environments. Even a small amount of red has been linked to decreased performance on tests evaluating competence, such as IQ tests, and to avoidance of tasks at which viewers might fail.
  • Forget about multi-tasking. Anyone can do two tasks at the same time but no one can do either one well well. If you create a workspace where you can "get two things done at once," your performance on both will suffer.
  • Minimize physical stress. When we're stressed by something in the world around us, we focus on identifying and analyzing what is generating that irritation. Since we have a limited amount of mental energy, if we're using some of it to deal with stress, we have less left over for whatever cognitive task we're trying to accomplish. Continuing, unpredictable noises are stressful, and so is glare, an uncomfortable chair, and light levels that are too bright, for starters.

Arrange your work area so you can look up and into the distance to rest your eyes. Looking at something at a really different distance refocuses your eyes, which revitalizes your eye muscles.

Clutter is stressful. It keeps you from focusing on what you want to accomplish. Removing clutter does not mean removing all of the personalization from an environment. Customizing a space so that it "tells your story" to yourself and others is deliberate and of great psychological value. Clutter is pretty much unintentional. That doesn't mean that you generate it in a trance - it means that a stray pen here, a file not put away there, an empty coffee cup that doesn't get back to the kitchen now and then combine, without premeditation, into a disheveled collection of crud.

There is only one way to stop the diversion of mental energy to a stressor - eliminate it. Search out and destroy that weird smell that might be the house burning down, but more probably is crumbs in the toaster oven. Install a no-glare screen on your computer screen, shut the door so you don't hear the loud but random bangs of the loose shutter against the house. The environmental elements that are most stressful are those that are unpredictable and uncontrollable - if you need to prioritize eliminating the stressors in your home. Working in a sensory void is just as stressful as uncontrollable, unpredictable irritants. If you eliminate all of the noise from your home office, you'll be just as stressed as if you are trying to work at the train station during rush hour.

  • Locate in a place that helps you ditch the distractions. Stress and distractions can seem a lot alike, but we can distinguish them here by defining stress as resulting from continuing conditions in the environment, while distractions appear suddenly and then stop of their own accord. For example, when a computer tone informs you that an e-mail message has been delivered to you, that's a distraction. A smoke alarm that bleats briefly throughout the day is a stress. A person who stops by your desk to speak to you is a distraction, the continuous murmur of voices you hear all day from that desk, is stressful, particularly if those voices are speaking a language you understand. After you are distracted, it takes you 15-20 minutes to fully return to the place you were mentally before that distraction.
  • Adding some green leafy plants is also a good decision psychologically. Studies have associated them with creativity and improved mental performance, for example.
  • Sit so that your back is against a full height wall or a shorter wall similar to the ones found in a restaurant booth. If your back is "protected," you'll feel more comfortable and have more mental energy.
  • If you're studying, don't lock yourself into a single spot. If you study in several different places at home and away from home, research indicates that you will enhance your command of the material you're learning. You'll do a better job on a project, such as writing a report, if you always work on it in the same space.

Buckling back down to the old grind after taking it easier for the summer can be a real drag. Working in a space that meets your psychological needs will enhance your performance and move you along to the fun stuff sooner.

As always, references for the scientific studies on which the material in this article is based are available from Dr. Augustin at