Sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. These are the ways through which we interact with the world and process our surroundings.
They have a hugely significant impact on how we think and act. The problem is, we often don’t realise just how significant because so much of our sensory processing happens at a subconscious level. Your sensory environment might well be boosting or even sabotaging your productivity without you being aware of it.
Taking some time to understand your senses and how best to harness them could be key to the success of your next project. Here are some techniques to get you started on making all 5 of your senses work for you.
Sight is perhaps the most important sense to get on top of as it’s the worst culprit for wandering. We talk about “the wandering eye”, not the wandering ear or nose.
A critical first step is to make sure that your task is as pleasant to focus on as you can. It starts with your screen. Experimenting with the fonts, brightness levels, contrast or screen angle that you’re using are all simple ways to make a difference to productivity. Don’t be afraid to change things up throughout the day either – it can be a simple way to gain a fresh perspective on something you might have been staring at for hours.
It’s also important to make sure your eyes have somewhere to rest. Customise your workspace with items that help you feel calm, happy or energised when you see them.
Consider using color to support these objectives – certain colours have been linked to different effects. For example, according to one study by the University of British Columbia, blue helps with creativity while red aids attention to detail.
It’s widely believed that watching the natural world can help relax and centre us by replenishing our ability to concentrate. If you don’t have a natural view to gaze at via a window, perhaps a desk plant, leafy screensaver or poster of a striking landscape might work for you.
Matching the right sound to the task at hand can be a powerful signal to your brain that it’s time to get down to work. Taking ownership of the soundtrack of your productivity is an efficient way to minimise distractions from the world around you.
We’ve talked before about how different types of music have been proven to help with various tasks. A critical consideration here is that auditory-based productivity varies based on your mood and personal taste. What sort of music makes you feel positive or relaxed? Don’t be afraid to use some cheesy favourites if you need a dopamine hit to get you through a task.
Sound doesn’t have to mean music. We’ve all, at some point, worked through construction, a rattling ventilation system or a noisy coworker (or neighbor). White noise can be very effective if you work best without distractions but still need something neutral to block out the hubbub. If you work better in a coffee shop or outdoors but can’t get out, try an ambience video or soundtrack to recreate that mood (such as these cafe soundtracks or these nature sounds).
As well as aiding focus, sound can also do the opposite and encourage our minds to wander. While that’s not ideal if you’re working on something more repetitive, like data entry, it could be invaluable if you’re trying to generate new ideas.
Smell has an incredibly powerful impact on our brain without us being consciously aware of it. It is closely linked to our experience of taste and vital for survival as it enables us to detect dangers like spoiled food. It also has a direct link with the part of our brain that handles learning, memory and the processing of emotion.
Taking advantage of your sense of smell can have a very positive impact on your productivity.
Aromatherapy tends to be dismissed as a placebo but there are plenty of academic studies that suggest that certain smells really can affect the way we think. Lemon has been celebrated for decades as a scent that sharpens focus and wakes us up. Other scents, like rosemary and lavender, have been shown to reduce cortisol levels, making us more relaxed and able to better process information.
Because of smell’s relationship with emotion and memory, using a scent that you like during a particular project will help boost your cognition. Even better, using the same scent the next time you need to focus on that project could help you sink into the necessary mindset. Scented candles and diffusers may not be a practical choice if you work in an office and you are being mindful of the people around you. Instead, think about aromatherapy roll-ons or herbal teas that can keep scents more localized.
In terms of the downsides of smell, think about what negative smells, such as the garbage bin, the cafeteria microwave or stale air, can do to harm your productivity.
Taste is a very powerful motivator because of how closely we associate it with pleasurable things. It’s also very customisable and easy to integrate into your day.
Think about marrying a taste you like with the work you’re doing. If there’s a taste you associate with excitement or high energy situations, use it next time you need to power through a difficult task. If you’re doing something that requires deep thought or longer term focusing, a more mellow flavour could help you relax into what you’re doing.
Taste is also an easy way to weave rewards into your process. If you have a favourite snack, and the willpower not to eat it all in one go, rewarding yourself after each goal you achieve can be a very Pavlovian way to motivate yourself.
Try to find something with nutritional benefits, like nuts or berries, that will keep you energised during your project. Health benefits aside, there’s also some evidence to suggest that eating fruits and vegetables could increase your curiosity and creativity.
Of course, you could just raid the candy stash at 3pm like the rest of us…
Touch is closely linked to how at ease we feel. Comfort can be your enemy if you’re hoping to stay alert but crucial if you’re going to be in one place – mental or physical – for a long time.
Everything from the feel of the chair beneath you to the feel of the keys under your fingers will impact how well you work over a longer period. Do you prefer the feel of a glass desk top or wood? It’s worth experimenting with the equipment available to make sure you’re using something which gives you the greatest amount of satisfaction from tactile feedback.
Touch can also be a valuable tool when you need to give your brain a quick change of pace.
Keeping a few interesting tactile objects on your desk for when you hit a mental roadblock is a simple way to make touch work for you.
Evidence also shows that fidgeting could actually be useful while we concentrate on drawn out tasks, so why not combine the two? Doing something physical with your hands like knitting, solving a puzzle or even just fiddling with a tactile object (looking at you, fidget spinner) for a little while might give you the mental refresh you need to carry on.
Making Sense of Your Productivity
Take an audit of your sensory experience at work. Can you identify areas that are having a sensory impact? If so, are they contributing to your productivity? Most people reading this have considered lighting and have a preference for music. But we all too often ignore our other senses and the many factors that might be having an impact on our work.
The shift to working from home has enabled many of us to control our environment to a degree. You can’t stop the kids from running in at the worst times, but you can get the desk you want, diffuse the smells you want, decorate how you prefer and take many other steps to customise your space.
There is no hard and fast way to ‘hack’ your senses. Something that works for someone else may not work for you at all. Something that works for you at one point will not work all the time. The way forward is experimentation, keeping an open mind and not dismissing what makes you feel good. You never know what impact it might have on the way you think.