Degree In Sight

Do you ever find yourself toting textbooks home to study or writing your dissertation in your pajamas? You're not alone: Most graduate students, especially those with full-time jobs or family responsibilities, complete a hefty chunk of their schoolwork from home.

Environmental psychologists and other researchers have found that home office set-ups can affect people's creativity, productivity and even health.

"Design psychology tells us that cognition and emotion in the physical setting are all bound together in the brain," says Constance Forrest, PsyD, of ForrestPainter Design, a Venice, Calif., firm that uses psychological research to design optimal environments. "You want to create a setting that's going to trigger or contribute to the feeling and state that are optimal for you to be doing your work."

So whether you're working from a room tricked out with the latest ergonomic technology or a makeshift desk in the corner of your bedroom, here are some expert tips to make your home office conducive to novel thought, lucid writing and brilliant research.

Plant strategically

If you've got a green thumb, arrange your houseplants for maximum benefit. In a 2004 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology (Vol. 45, No. 5). Seiji Shibata, PhD, of the department of human studies at Bunkyo Gakuin University, and Naoto Suzuki, PhD, of Doshisha University, both in Japan, reported that participants who completed a word-association task in a room with a plant performed better than those who performed the same task in rooms with either a magazine rack or nothing in the plant's place. However, a 2002 study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology (Vol. 22), found that having plants in sight negatively affected participants' performance on high-concentration tasks, perhaps because they were distracting. To avoid such distractions, place your plants behind you where you can see them only during breaks, says Shibata.

Give yourself options

Weigh the tasks you'll complete in your homeoffice and plan your space accordingly. In a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research (Vol. 34, No. 2), lead researcher Joan Meyers-Levy, PhD, a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management, found that high-ceilinged spaces are most conducive for creative thought, and rooms with lower ceilingshelp people focus on detailed tasks such as data analysis. Though students can't often alter their ceiling heights, they can get similar effects by using furniture to create secluded, cocoon-like spaces within larger rooms, says Meyers-Levy.

Inspire yourself

Surround your workspace with inspirational objects and photographs, say experts. For example, if you have a photo of yourself crossing the finish line of the Boston Marathon, display it in your office as a reminder of a moment of success.

"Seeing that photo triggers a whole physiological chain of memory and body chemistry that floods you with a feeling of being energized and capable," says Forrest.

Sit pretty

Creating an ergonomically correct workstation should be your first priority, says Forrest. "If you can get a good chair that supports your back and has adjustable armrests, put your money there," she says. The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends that while working on your computer you:

  • Position your computer monitor just below eye level.

  • Sit with your shoulders relaxed and your head and neck in line with your torso.

  • Keep your elbows close to your body, your wrists flat and your hands in line with your forearms as you type.

  • Keep your feet flat on the floor or use a footrest.

  • Arrange frequently used tools such as telephones or office supplies close to your body to avoid the strain of overreaching.

  • Take frequent breaks to walk around and rest your eyes.

Illuminate evenly

Forrest recommends a balance between high-level light that bounces off the ceiling, mid-level lighting (usually from a table lamp) and task lighting focused on your work. Strive for even illumination from several sources, she says, because sitting under just one interrogation-style spotlight forces your eyes to work harder. "The more even your lighting can be, the better it is for your energy level and ultimately for your immune system," she says.


Let the sun shine in

Consider placing your desk near a window, advises Forrest. In fact, a 1999 study conducted by the Heschong Mahone Group found that students learned best in rooms with lots of natural light.

In addition to possiblyboosting brainpower, natural light plays an important role in regulating the body's rhythms.

"Students typically have disturbed sleep/wake cycles because they're up late writing papers, so it's more important than ever for them to get a healthy calibration," says Forrest. If you live in a sunlight-poor place, go for a walk outside on your breaks, she adds.