Elevate Your Workspace

Turn psychological research into practical design tips.

Johnny T. Nguyen
8 min readSep 26, 2021


“… one study found that cues reminding Asian American girls of their ethnicity improved their scores on maths tests, whereas cues that reminded them of their gender undermined their performance.” — @anniemurphypaul [4]

Yikes. Ignoring the stereotype in that statement for a quick sec, that’s an eye-opening finding. If we can surround ourselves with cues that remind us of how awesome we are, then we’ll more likely perform better. In simpler terms — a few critical objects on your desk could make you more productive and powerful. #InfinityGems

In this post I’ll discuss:

  • How to use your identity to elevate your workspace
  • Physical locate to place that improves your performance
  • Use your personality to increase your workspace productivity
  • Design tips to optimize your workspace

Let’s get to it!

Use Your Identity to Elevate Your Workspace

My Funko Pop Cyclops

I’m a big comic book fan, and one of my favorite characters is Scott Summer, aka Cyclops from the X-Men. The movies do a poor job of portraying his character, but in the comics, Cyclops is a master strategist and field leader. Able to make complex plans, quick tactical decisions, and lead a diverse team, he’s the dream business leader! That’s why I moved a few of my Cyclops figurines onto my workspace and I fiddle with them during virtual meetings.

“Objects we place in our workplace reinforce our sense of identity.” [4]

Next, let’s think about identity and workplace design when it comes to the office. No doubt our teams are diverse these days (or at least it should be). Different heritages, demographics, and generational. That’s why it’s so important (and difficult) to design a workspace that welcomes all identities.

“Cues of belonging — signals embedded in a space that communicate to occupants that they are welcome there — or not.” [4]

Instead of going basic with guaranteed non-offensive designs, research suggests you lean in with specific design choices that celebrate the differences, uniqueness. The goal is to, “advertise our enthusiasms, hobbies, and achievements, express a creative streak or a quirky sense of humor, or simply remind us of our loved ones.”

Your Call-to-Action:

  • Find an object that exemplifies your identity and immediately move it to your workspace — make it highly visible.
  • See if you can add decor to the team’s common area that speaks to the uniqueness of your team.

Location Affects Your Performance

“Our minds are bigger than our brains, and if we embrace that fact, there’s so much more we can accomplish.” — @EBalcetis in @washingtonpost [8]

Whoa, that’s a big statement. Read it again, just to let it sink in.

The assertion is that our “brain” is bigger than the 3 pound organ residing in our skull. That implies our “mind” uses what’s around us to “think” more effectively, efficiently, etc. In other words, we can increase our performance by surrounding ourselves with things that help. This is the premise behind Annie Murphy Paul’s latest book, The Extended Mind.

Photo by Flo Dahm from Pexels

Let’s start with a concept we can all understand and then talk about some crazy ideas.

“The phenomenon of home advantage, the tendency for residents to disproportionately prevail during competition over visitors, is perhaps the best demonstration of this fact, having been observed across a wide variety of both tasks and species.” — Benjamin Meagher, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Hope College [10]

We all know there’s an advantage when playing on home turf. But why? Perhaps there’s something about being familiar with the environment, i.e. “spatial familiarity.” Perhaps home turf comes with adoring fans that are rooting you on. Or home turf has signs, symbols, and decorations that reinforce our identity, such as diplomas on the wall. But how far can we exploit our physical space to ‘extend’ our mind’s performance?

During the pandemic, I do most of my deep work outside on my patio. It’s great because it leverages something called ‘soft fascination.’ As Paul describes it, “looking out on grassy expanses near loose clumps of trees and a source of water helps us solve problems.” Yet, I also love working in my local Starbucks. I’ve worked there so much that I’ve associated that location, smell, and ambient noise to who I am. “I’m a coffee drinker and social person, who enjoys doing deep work in a classy spot.”

Describe Your Workspace

In describing your workspace, I think you’re actually describing yourself. So, take a moment to think about what your workspace currently looks and feels like.

My home office is bright, with high wattage spotlights and then a big window for the afternoon sun to stream in. The desk is clutter free and objects are arranged neatly in 90 degree angles. My background is a view of my comic book collection with some superhero figurines. And I’ve got a colorful rug underneath my chair that serves no purpose but to add some color. In summary, I hope my personality conveys a warm, clear and focused experience… with some playfulness.

My current workspace setup

What does your workspace say about your personality?

We just discussed why our identity needs to be seen in our workspace, because it affects our performance. If we look around and don’t identify with the place, we’d naturally feel like an outsider and then performance drops. That’s why we need to talk about how to embed our personality into the workspace too.

And that’s where Marie Kondo steps in, with her easy-peasy 3 “Tips To Optimize Your Workspace & Boost Productivity”:

  • Step 1: Visualize a workspace that works for you. Create a space that improves your well-being and sort through your items and evaluate them on usefulness.
  • Step 2: Deal with your past to find your ideal future. When you’re cleaning up you’re bound to find relics from your past. Ask yourself: does it have a place in my ideal future?
  • Step 3: Fill your space with things you truly love

“One of the most important parts of creating your own office is adding your personality and style into the space. What inspires and motivates you most? Think of colors, books, quotes, art prints, your favorite scented candle or even a plant or two.” — @magnolia [5]

My tip, google a role model of yours, such as the expert in your field, and see if you can find a picture of their workspace. My two favorites, Jimmy Chin (adventurer) and Jim Lee (comic book artist).

Optimize Your Workspace

Let’s close out our chat with a splattering of design tips. But don’t forget about some of the lofty ideas in designing our workspace. Specifically, Paul’s radical idea through her research that our ‘mind’ can be extended beyond our brain and into the environment and the people around us. My simple brain said, “no duh.” Of course the people around us help us think better. That’s called teamwork, right? Paul takes it deeper:

“That’s why so many of us think group work is onerous or unsatisfying- we bring the habits and practices of individual thinking into groups but really we need to have more structured interactions so that we can bring the resources of the group to bear on problems that we’re trying to solve, and to really extend our minds with other people, creating a group mind that’s bigger and better than the sum of its parts.” [12]

Sounds like Paul is suggest a hive mind and we become more of the Borg collective. “Resistance is futile.”

I digress. Let’s get back to something that we can easily wrap our minds around — designing our office to be more productive.

Found this collection of 18 design tips. I went through the list and was happy to find I’m doing 6 of them.

  • 5. Actual houseplants
  • 7. Natural light near a window
  • 11. Cushions for comfort
  • 13. Multiple sources of light to avoid eye strain
  • 14. Declutter your space
  • 15. Add soft furnishings for comfort and noise reduction
Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

And one final thought:

“As soon as we externalise the contents of our minds, and we turn them into physical objects that we can manipulate, landscapes that we can navigate through, when we pass through the body by bringing in movement and gesture or when we pass through the brains of others, our ideas have a chance to change, evolve, and collide with each other in fruitful ways that simply wouldn’t happen if they were sealed inside our heads.” [12]

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Johnny T. Nguyen

All about the adventure of positivity & productivity. I’ve turned into my parents and now wake up before 6 AM… & crush it. 🔅