How to create a productive working environment when on a budget

Accomplished writers invest considerable resources in building work environments that maximize their creativity. Unfortunately, few remote workers have the budget of a best-selling author, but there are other ways to craft a working environment that fosters creativity and productivity.

Writer Cal Newport has a passion for researching fellow authors’ working habits and the environment they create. Whether it’s Jack Carr renting a rustic cabin, Eoin Colfer converting a backyard shed into a office with “depth-supporting aesthetics”, or George Lucas building a two-story writing tower with wrap-around windows, it’s clear that successful writers know how to set themselves up for creative success through the space where they work.

When reading those stories, I am inspired—but the feeling doesn’t last long. I simply don’t have the budget to build a writing shed or lease “a modest office above a restaurant” like Cal does.

Cal’s encouragements seem applicable only to those with resources and flexibility, the knowledge worker elites such as himself and the writers he showcases. What is the rest of us, the 99-percenter of knowledge work, supposed to do? Here are some ideas.

Work from multiple locations

One of the trends Cal observed is that many writers create away from home, possibly because the unfamiliar scenery puts their brain in a different, more creative mode. We might not have the budget to rent a cabin in the woods, but there are likely coffee shops and libraries we can go to for a change of scene. Bonus point if they are within walking distance.

There are also ways to shake things up without leaving your home by dedicating a different location to a different kind of work. A software developer, for example, could process emails on the couch, run code reviews at the dinner table, and work on their coding tasks in their home office.

Change your digital working environment

If you have kids around the house and the dinner table is off-limits, there are ways to introduce variation in your workspace. The trick is to shift the focus from your physical working environment to your digital one.

Here are some things you can do to vary up your digital workspace:

  • Use a different wallpaper for different working modes
  • Change text editor themes based on the work that you are doing—I use a dedicated Vim color scheme when I write in the mornings.
  • Switch between dark mode and light mode based on whether you are doing deep or shallow work
  • Associate different browsers with different kinds of tasks

Bouncing between apps and settings introduces friction—that’s a feature, not a bug. Making the transition between one work mode and the other slower and more explicit gives your brain additional time to flush attention residue.

Use rituals and routines to guide the workday

Rituals and routines are powerful allies in the quest to get your brain to collaborate with you, and they are accessible to everyone.

The word “ritual” sounds fancy, but, in practice, a ritual nothing more than associating a specific action with the beginning or end of a task or mindset. Here are examples of simple rituals and their associated task:

Where rituals act as a primer for your brain, routines put it on rails. When you do the same thing at the same time every day, it becomes easier to switch gears for it. In this way, adding structure to your day actually fosters creativity.

As Steven King put it in his memoir On Writing, “Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon or seven ’til three.”

Listen to different music

Music can help your brain transition between different kinds of work and can be effectively ritualized. For instance, I have a playlist for my weekly planning on Monday mornings. I’ve listened to it so many times that hearing the first notes of the first song is enough to get me into planning mode.

Speaking of music, noise-canceling headphones are accessible to everyone and make for a great helper in busy offices and hectic family homes alike.

Switch between working postures

Another way to introduce a change of pace in your work day is to alternate between sitting and standing. One way to do this is with a sit-stand desk.

A sit-stand desk is a desk with motorized legs that you can adjust to work as a regular or standing desk. You can leverage this ability by doing specific work sitting and other standing without having to leave your room. As a bonus, it will help you break the unhealthy pattern of sitting for long hours.

Admittedly, a standing desk is a non-trivial purchase, but there is enough variety and competition in the market for budgets of all sizes. If you can afford it, I’d recommend buying one with memory so you can change mode with a single tap. I have an IKEA one, it was economical and has been serving me well, but I have to hold the up or down button until the desk reaches the desired height, which is inconvenient.

Use a tablet for personal digital activities

A tablet is another purchase that won’t break the bank and is guaranteed to help you create mental space for your work tasks.

Having a tablet to use for all your personal digital activities, be that browsing cat pictures or watching TV shows, is an effective way to differentiate between work and leisure. If you only use your laptop or desktop computer for work, your brain will know it’s time to work as soon as you touch the keyboard.

You and I might not have the budget to buy a farm where to write in silence or the flexibility to work from one, but we still have agency on our surroundings.

The collection above merely scratches the surface of the various ways we can introduce healthy variation in our working environment without access to the resources of the knowledge work 1-percenters.

Whether you listen to the same playlist whenever you write a report, switch to dark mode when it’s time for deep work, or walk to the coffee shop to read your emails, the key is to draw as clear a line as possible around the different activities that make up your work day, so that your brain clearly knows what it’s expected of it.

I’d love to hear about your working environment and how you structure your day. Get in touch on Twitter @mokagio.

Image credits: freddie marriage on Unsplash.