The Episode at a Glance

  • Is place important to you?
  • For example, does it matter where you work?
  • Is one office the same as another?
  • In reality, our physical environments affect not only our health but also our productivity.
  • Just for starters, temperature, lighting, noise and oxygen levels all play a role in how comfortable and productive we will be in any given environment.

Listen to the Episode


My name is Tom O’Leary and this is the Time Academy podcast. Today we are talking about how our physical environments affect our time and productivity.

Productivity and time management have traditionally looked at the individual. The logic being that that any issue is the individual’s – the physical environments they inhabit are merely inanimate bystanders. And yet, anyone working from home during the pandemic likely became acutely aware of the impact and importance of the environments in which we live and work. My personal experience is that the individual and their physical environment are highly connected so one’s problem often becomes the other’s problem and they can’t be looked at in isolation.

By environment I’m including anything in our surroundings that impacts us physically, emotionally or spiritually. Basically anything that engages our senses. For most of us in fact these physical environments are also primarily man-made. In the US, the EPA – the Environmental Protection Agency – has calculated that the average person spends around 93% of their time indoors or a mere half of one day per week outdoors – half of one day per week outdoors.

Until recently, very little consideration was given to creating built environments in which we might flourish. In fact, how many buildings have you been in that mimic the natural environments in which we evolved? That have lighting that imitates nature? Or even buildings that are set to the right temperature? Research has found the top 2 issues affecting office workers’ ability to get work done is “being too hot” or “being too cold”.

Or bizarrely even have enough oxygen in the office? A 2015 Harvard study showed that workers in buildings, and I quote “with below-average levels of indoor pollutants and carbon dioxide” were twice as productive as those working in conventional environments. So what was the difference? When you peel it back, the more productive workers enjoyed more oxygen in their air. Sounds pretty obvious in a way!

In fact, this is a deeply personal issue for me just now. By complete coincidence, I had planned to talk about environments today without thinking through that I would be travelling yesterday so I am not in my usual physical environment. I’ve actually come back to a place I know well and yet the sounds, smells, lighting, views are very different and my whole body is distracted by the newness. My mind is hyper alert to every passing sound and I’ve been nowhere near as productive today as I normally am, finding it much more difficult to do focused work.

So for me it starts here – how comfortable am I in my physical environment? Just think through the environments you inhabit during your day – what are you asking of each environment and what is each environment asking of you? At home, for me that is as minimalist and calm as possible. The minimalist piece is simply around having fewer things to manage. At work, this changes depending on what needs to get done.

Now, this can be more complicated in an office setting where your needs crash up against those of your team and the organisation in general – culture, expectations and norms play a major part in creating that work environment. And yet, there likely are things you can control in your immediate environment or at least start having conversations around this.

There are times where we probably need a big “Do not disturb” sign on the door, the phone turned off and there are times when the office door needs to be open and when the interruption is the work. Open plan spaces are wonderful for certain types of work, and completely anti-productive for others.

So, in closing, if you’re lucky enough to be able to choose your environment just ask yourself, what is the best environment for each activity? If you don’t have that luxury, perhaps ask yourself “What can I control?”

Thanks for listening to the Time Academy podcast. I hope this has offered you a slightly different perspective. If you find it helpful please share! I’d also love to get your feedback and hear your stories so please feel free to email me.