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The Neuroscience of Workstation Ergonomics: how your setup impacts your focus

As humans, we are not designed to sit all day. The drastic changes in our working formats have grossly outpaced our natural biological and anatomical changes, which has resulted in us, as a species, frequently experiencing physical health issues as a result of being overly sedentary.

These changes are acutely noticeable. I'd dare wager that you would have laid victim to some form of physical discomfort in the past 12 months that has either come as a result of, or is exacerbated by, prolonged sitting - particularly if you are seated un-ergonomically.

These physical issues are universal and widely spoken-of, particularly since working from home has become normalised. But, luckily, they are reasonably easy to address. All it takes is a bit of effort and perhaps a (metaphorical) helping hand - for which we know of a great and helpful tool (Clue - it's us. Shameless self-promotion).

But did you know that the way your desk is set up actually impacts you neurologically as well?

Our brains work in weird and wonderful ways, and the connection between the brain and the body is as interesting as it is complex. However, once we start to understand some of the mechanisms around this connection, we can begin to optimise the way we operate.

Today we'll explore a few key components of your desk setup, and how they can be optimised to increase your level of focus and alertness. Let's go.

1. Workspace Lighting

Vision and lighting are important components that can be utilised to set your brain at a high state of alertness. To increase alertness and, in turn, productivity, one should:

Tip 1: Work in an environment that is brightly lit by overhead lights.

As humans, vision is our most important sense. It not only allows us to see, but the intake and processing of different types and intensities of light can cause an up-regulation or down-regulation of some of the brain's internal processes.

In this case, immersing yourself in such an environment can increase our level of alertness.

But how does it work?

Well, in our eyes, and in particular the bottom parts of our eyes, we have receptors that, in response to light exposure, influence the release of those special neuro-modulators that you've spoken of frequently. Yep, you bet-cha, we're talking about dopamine, serotonin & noradrenalin.

We know already that increased presence of these molecules has a powerful and positive impact on our level of focus, concentration, energy levels, among other things.

But, a high state of alertness is not always a good thing, particularly as we near night time. So, to do this optimally, it is best to saturate yourself in bright, overhead light up in the first 0-9 hours after waking. After this, it is best to begin dimming the lights, and utilising lights that are at a lower level (i.e. lamps rather than ceiling lights).

2. Visual Focus

Next, let's take a look at your workstation setup. We know that the positioning of our equipment is important for our physical health, but where you physically place a screen in your workspace plays a key role in your level of alertness.

There is a relationship between where we look and our level of focus.

To put it simply - there are neurons in our brain that, when activated, increase feelings of sleepiness and drowsiness. Conversely, there are also neurons that, when activated, increase feelings of alertness. Both of these sets of neurons are sensitive to the direction that you focus your gaze.

When look down, the neurons associated with sleepiness are activated, resulting in exactly that - sleepiness. As you could've guessed by now, as we lift our gaze to around a neutral level (looking straight ahead), the neurons associated with alertness become activated and, unsurprisingly, increase our level of alertness.

So, to optimise our use of this, we should:

Tip 2: Set up your screen in a position where you can see the screen by looking directly forward at eye-level.

Thankfully, this positioning is also recommended to support your physical health. Win-win.

3. Body positioning

Similar to point 2, there are neurons in your body that are either activated or deactivated in response to changes in your body posture. These neurons, once again, have to do with either eliciting feelings of sleepiness or alertness.

When we are in an upright position - such as standing or sitting up straight - the neurons associated with alertness are activated, which, unsurprisingly, increases our level of alertness.

Conversely, as we recline towards a lying down posture, the neurons associated with sleepiness are activated, resulting in exactly that.

Both point 2 and 3 are important to remember for those of us who don't mind doing work from the couch, or from bed, in a reclined position. It may feel comfortable (for the short term, until it brings forth discomfort), but you are doing your level of alertness - and by extension your productivity - a serious disservice.

As I mentioned towards the top of this piece - we're not made to sit all day. So, if you have the possibility to perform a portion of your day in a standing position, it is recommended that you do so. 50/50 would likely be the ideal split.

Tip 3: perform your work in an upright position (seated or standing) with your screen at eye-level

4. Don't sit for too long

Now the last thing that I'll add is not necessarily a tip to do with your workstation itself, but more of a reminder to break up your sitting bouts. We've harped on this repeatedly, so I won't dive into the specifics of it now, but just keep in mind that:

the positive benefits of exercise can be offset by sitting all day

This means, that even if you are somebody who exercises before work or after work, if you remain seated without frequent breaks and movement throughout the day, some of the benefits that you've worked so hard towards will be lost.

Tip 4: Break up sitting bouts every 45 minutes with 5+ minutes of movement

So there we have it - 4 simple and likely familiar workstation/ movement tips that you are able to implement basically cost-free and effort-free.

If you're looking for more in-depth information on these topics and some additional workspace tips, this podcast is a great resource and will provide you with a solid overview:

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