Finding a Work Space Where You Can Thrive

by | Sep 26, 2016

In academia, we think a lot about how we work: how to manage our time, how to clearly and concisely present our research, and how to tell compelling stories on the page and in the classroom. But what about where we work?

The space where we work—whether it be an office, library, or our kitchen table while our kid or partner sleeps—influences what we produce. Often these are the spaces where we spend most of our time, do our best thinking, or feel the most scattered.

It is important to take the time to find or create a work space where we can thrive. Here are a few things to consider:

Physical space

For some of us, a clean, open surface fosters our best thinking. For others, having all our materials within arm’s reach keeps us centered and focus.

What is the current state of the desk, table, sofa, or floor on which you do your work? Are you surrounded by books, papers, and gadgets? Do you find yourself reaching often for these materials, or do they get in your way?

If your current state of clutter gives you a headache, take some time to return library books, digitize articles or files, or stack your books against the wall to clear your work surface.

Access to a bright and steady natural light source helps you maintain your energy across the seasons and not strain your vision. Are you working under dim, fluorescent lighting for hours at a time? If you can, seek out a work space near a window or skylight.

Although the concept of building our scholarly arguments from the ground up feels sensible to most of us, assessing our work space the same way might seem silly. But having a comfortable, sturdy seat is important when your body is perched there for hours at a time.

Does your office chair, wheelchair, or the sofa where you work make your back hurt? Is it adjustable for different heights or body shapes? Do you have enough room in your work space to move around? If you are able to invest in a comfortable seat that works for your body do so, but on a smaller scale keeping a pillow or even a blanket at your desk can ease immediate discomfort.

Sometimes, the rolling hum of background noise or friendly colleagues can help focus a wandering mind, or even energize our thinking in new directions. Other times, it can be an overwhelming distraction.

Reflect on what noise level allows you to work peacefully and productively. Do you work best in a dynamic environment with external stimuli? Or does a quiet, tranquil space allow you to get into a good flow?


Creating a productive work space is not only about practicality, but is also about determining how a space makes us feel. Keeping personal mementos where you work, like photos or meaningful keepsakes, can help you feel centered and combat the tunnel vision that often takes over when working in a stressful, achievement-focused environment.

Often in academia we are relegated to working in cramped, stifling, and poorly-lit spaces. The addition of a plant or two can help your thoughts flourish.

Are you able to keep something green at your desk, and care for it regularly? The brightness, oxygen, and routine plants can provide are all antidotes to gray and sterile spaces.

Rhythm and routine

Maybe your office is small and cramped, or you don’t have an office on campus at all. It is deeply frustrating to balance your workload without the privilege of a safe, clean, and consistent work space, but that doesn’t mean you have to be relegated to your couch. There may be other spaces on campus where you can comfortably work and even foster meaningful connections outside your school or department.

Campus libraries often allow you to check out a carrel to safely keep all of your books and papers in one location. Or check out your school’s cultural resource centers, writing centers, or even building lounges if you benefit from a livelier work space.

Even those of us with the privilege of an ideal work space can benefit from an occasional change of pace and place. Sometimes the key is not just getting out of the building, but off of campus altogether.

Are there local cafes with comfortable seats, good lighting, and affordable food and drinks available to you? A local library branch that is quiet and has large tables to spread your materials out on?

Research which spaces have free wifi, or consider the benefit of going offline for an afternoon to catch up on your reading or grading. Familiarizing yourself with your neighborhood spots not only changes up your writing routine, but also provides perspective and opportunities to engage with communities beyond the university.

Last but not least, finding or creating a productive work space requires thinking about the boundaries between work, play, and rest.

If you can put some physical distance between the spaces where you work and rest, do. So often in academia, we feel we must be “on” or in work mode 24/7. Having a dedicated work space can be beneficial to keeping your home (or at least your bed) a space where you can rest and rejuvenate.

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Alexandra Sastre is the associate director of campus communications at Swarthmore College.

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