Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
5 effortless, science-backed changes to your isolation workspace that will improve productivity and mental health
A clean work space, plants, and putting on the right pants all make working from home easier, according to science.
- Maintaining a proper morning routine (which involves getting dressed in work clothes) and structuring your work-from-home day as you would any other in-office workday can help boost productivity.
- Organizing your work station (the height of your desk, the use of a proper chair, the cleanliness of your work area) can also impact your mood and productivity levels.
- Adding a sense of joy and fun to your in-home work environment helps improve your mental state and work ethic, according to designer Ingrid Fetell Lee.
Dress for success (even at home).
"Enclothed cognition" is the term to describe how clothes impact our mood and behaviors.
Photo by Bogdan Florea on Shutterstock
While it's very tempting to roll out of bed and into the workday still dressed in your most comfortable pajamas, this could be one of the biggest reasons you're finding it hard to concentrate during your work from home days.
"Enclothed cognition" was a term coined by the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology to describe the way that clothes can impact our mood and behaviors. In one particular 2012 study, participants who donned a white lab coat increased selective attention compared to those participants who were not wearing lab coats.
According to Hajo Adam and Adam D. Galinsky (the lead researchers on the project), clothes systematically influence your psychological processes - dress for work and you will be much more productive.
Structure your days of the week to be similar to one another.
Routine and structure might feel non-existent in these difficult and uncertain COVID-19 times, but research shows that keeping up with a day-time routine is really important to both your mental health and your effectiveness on the job, especially when you're working remotely.
One of the biggest mistakes people are making during periods where they are working remotely is sleeping in. Hitting the snooze button a few more times than normal may seem fine (because you don't actually have to leave your house to start work) - but oversleeping can actually dampen your cognitive function just as much as not sleeping enough can.
According to a 2018 study conducted by Western University, oversleeping can impact your ability to store and recall information from memory and decrease your problem-solving skills.
While you don't have to stick to the typical 9-5 hours you would if you were in the office working, seek out a pattern in your work-from-home routine - unless you are stuck to particular deadlines, you should aim to do the most important work when you're feeling most energized (whether that be eight in the morning or three in the afternoon).
Organize your work station for maximum comfort and productivity.
Keep your workstation as clean and clutter-free as possible.
Photo by Pepsco Studio on Shutterstock
While it's common sense to work in a somewhat organized work station that provides the space you need to work, there are plenty of things at your desk right now that could be impairing your functionality throughout the day.
While you may be sitting at your Ikea desk not giving much thought to this - the height of your desk really can impact how productive you are throughout the day.
A desk that allows you to sit with proper posture:
- Your feet should be flat on the floor
- Your legs should fit comfortably under the desk
- Your arms should be resting parallel to the floor
You can use the Ergotron Workspace Planner to find the proper settings for your desk and chair based on your height
The height of your chair isn't the only thing that can impact how productive and healthy you are during these work from home days.
The depth of your chair also matters - chairs that fit your body properly should:
- Provide proper lumbar support.
- Allow you to sit with your lower back against the lumbar support curve
- Leave a 1-2 inch gap between the back of your knees and the end of your seat.
If you find that your chair isn't meeting these requirements - maybe invest in a new office chair. After all, we may all be telecommuting for a while due to social distancing rules.
When it comes to your monitor or screen, many people don't understand how this could connect with things such as bad posture, shoulder problems or eye strain.
However, according to these monitor placement guidelines from the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), your computer screen or monitor should be:
- Between 20 and 40 inches in front of you
- The top line of the screen or monitor should be at (or below) your eye level
- Your screen shouldn't be tilted more than 10-20 degrees.
Organize your desk to improve your mental health.
It's not just ergonomics that should play into how you organize your desk, but the things you have near you and how you arrange your workspace at home can impact your mental health throughout the day as well.
The power of a desk plant:
Turns out plants can help make you more productive. While this may sound strange, there is quite a bit of research to back this claim.
Indoor plants prevent fatigue during what can be attention-demanding work hours and placing your desk next to a window that has a view of greenery can keep us focused, according to a 2011 study.
In fact, psychologists at Exeter University claim a desk plant can boost your productivity by up to 15%.
A cluttered space means a cluttered mind. Distractions could be ongoing depending on your current situation (children home from school, a spouse or partner that's also working from home, pets that require our attention) - so having your desk be a designated place for work (and work only) is important.
At the end of each day, take a few minutes to clear your desk of clutter:
- Put all pens back in a holder, stack papers neatly proper piles.
- Clean away any dishes (coffee mugs, etc) and wipe down your desk.
Returning the next day to a clean and clear work station will put you in a more productive mood and get you off to a better start.
Make working from home a joyful experience.
Ingrid Fetell Lee, a designer and author of "Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness" explains that creating a joyful working from home experience is key to being more productive.
If your space feels comfortable and settled, your life is likely feeling that way as well. If your environment is feeling frazzled, cluttered and tired - you may start to struggle with those difficult emotions in your personal life.
The idea that your environment can impact your mood is part feng shui and part logic. When your desk is piled full of papers and bills, it's likely safe to say you're maybe not as "on top of" your finances as you'd like to be.
"How we care for our homes often indicates how we're caring for ourselves," Lee explains, "If the kitchen is a mess, my diet is usually a mess too. A clogged fridge and pantry kills my motivation for cooking. We start ordering more takeout and end up feeling bloated with low-energy and it becomes hard to break the downward spiral."
The same goes for your working space - if your workspace (especially your home office) is feeling cluttered and chaotic, you will be less productive.
- Working from Home is the Way of the Future - Big Think ›
- Are you psychologically prepared for a coronavirus outbreak? - Big ... ›
- Quarantine and isolation for COVID-19, explained by a professional ... ›
- 7 items to make working from home easier and more efficient - Big Think ›
- Smart clothing: MIT designs textiles that sense movement - Big Think ›
The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.
- A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
- It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
- The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
Humanity knows surprisingly little about the ocean depths. An often-repeated bit of evidence for this is the fact that humanity has done a better job mapping the surface of Mars than the bottom of the sea. The creatures we find lurking in the watery abyss often surprise even the most dedicated researchers with their unique features and bizarre behavior.
A recent expedition off the coast of Java discovered a new isopod species remarkable for its size and resemblance to Darth Vader.
The ocean depths are home to many creatures that some consider to be unnatural.
According to LiveScience, the Bathynomus genus is sometimes referred to as "Darth Vader of the Seas" because the crustaceans are shaped like the character's menacing helmet. Deemed Bathynomus raksasa ("raksasa" meaning "giant" in Indonesian), this cockroach-like creature can grow to over 30 cm (12 inches). It is one of several known species of giant ocean-going isopod. Like the other members of its order, it has compound eyes, seven body segments, two pairs of antennae, and four sets of jaws.
The incredible size of this species is likely a result of deep-sea gigantism. This is the tendency for creatures that inhabit deeper parts of the ocean to be much larger than closely related species that live in shallower waters. B. raksasa appears to make its home between 950 and 1,260 meters (3,117 and 4,134 ft) below sea level.
Perhaps fittingly for a creature so creepy looking, that is the lower sections of what is commonly called The Twilight Zone, named for the lack of light available at such depths.
It isn't the only giant isopod, far from it. Other species of ocean-going isopod can get up to 50 cm long (20 inches) and also look like they came out of a nightmare. These are the unusual ones, though. Most of the time, isopods stay at much more reasonable sizes.
View this post on Instagram
During an expedition, there are some animals which you find unexpectedly, while there are others that you hope to find. One of the animal that we hoped to find was a deep sea cockroach affectionately known as Darth Vader Isopod. The staff on our expedition team could not contain their excitement when they finally saw one, holding it triumphantly in the air! #SJADES2018
A post shared by LKCNHM (@lkcnhm) on
What benefit does this find have for science? And is it as evil as it looks?
The discovery of a new species is always a cause for celebration in zoology. That this is the discovery of an animal that inhabits the deeps of the sea, one of the least explored areas humans can get to, is the icing on the cake.
Helen Wong of the National University of Singapore, who co-authored the species' description, explained the importance of the discovery:
"The identification of this new species is an indication of just how little we know about the oceans. There is certainly more for us to explore in terms of biodiversity in the deep sea of our region."
The animal's visual similarity to Darth Vader is a result of its compound eyes and the curious shape of its head. However, given the location of its discovery, the bottom of the remote seas, it may be associated with all manner of horrifically evil Elder Things and Great Old Ones.
If computers can beat us at chess, maybe they could beat us at math, too.
- Most everyone fears that they will be replaced by robots or AI someday.
- A field like mathematics, which is governed solely by rules that computers thrive on, seems to be ripe for a robot revolution.
- AI may not replace mathematicians but will instead help us ask better questions.
The following is an excerpt adapted from the book Shape. It is reprinted with permission of the author.
Will machines replace us? Since the origin of artificial intelligence (AI), people have worried that computers eventually (or even imminently!) will surpass the human cognitive capacity in every respect.
Artificial intelligence pioneer Oliver Selfridge, in a television interview from the early 1960s, said, "I am convinced that machines can and will think in our lifetime" — though with the proviso, "I don't think my daughter will ever marry a computer." (Apparently, there is no technical advance so abstract that people can't feel sexual anxiety about it.)
Let's make the relevant question more personal: will machines replace me? I'm a mathematician; my profession is often seen from the outside as a very complicated but ultimately purely mechanical game played with fixed rules, like checkers, chess, or Go. These are activities in which machines have already demonstrated superhuman ability.
Some people imagine a world where computers give us all the answers. I dream bigger. I want them to ask good questions.
But for me, math is different: it is a creative pursuit that calls on our intuition as much as our ability to compute. (To be fair, chess players probably feel the same way.) Henri Poincaré, the mathematician who re-envisioned the whole subject of geometry at the beginning of the 20th century, insisted it would be hopeless
"to attempt to replace the mathematician's free initiative by a mechanical process of any kind. In order to obtain a result having any real value, it is not enough to grind out calculations, or to have a machine for putting things in order: it is not order only, but unexpected order, that has a value. A machine can take hold of the bare fact, but the soul of the fact will always escape it."
But machines can make deep changes in mathematical practice without shouldering humans aside. Peter Scholze, winner of a 2018 Fields Medal (sometimes called the "Nobel Prize of math") is deeply involved in an ambitious program at the frontiers of algebra and geometry called "condensed mathematics" — and no, there is no chance that I'm going to try to explain what that is in this space.
Meet AI, your new research assistant
What I am going to tell you is the result of what Scholze called the "Liquid Tensor Experiment." A community called Lean, started by Leonardo de Moura of Microsoft Research and now open-source and worldwide, has the ambitious goal of developing a computer language with the expressive capacity to capture the entirety of contemporary mathematics. A proposed proof of a new theorem, formalized by translation into this language, could be checked for correctness automatically, rather than staking its reputation on fallible human referees.
Scholze asked last December whether the ideas of condensed mathematics could be formalized in this way. He also wanted to know whether it could express the ideas of a particularly knotty proof that was crucial to the project — a proof that he was pretty sure was right.
When I first heard about Lean, I thought it would probably work well for some easy problems and theorems. I underestimated it. So did Scholze. In a May 2021 blog post, he writes, "[T]he Experiment has verified the entire part of the argument that I was unsure about. I find it absolutely insane that interactive proof assistants are now at the level that within a very reasonable time span they can formally verify difficult original research."
And the contribution of the machine wasn't just to certify that Scholze was right to think his proof was sound; he reports that the work of putting the proof in a form that a machine could read improved his own human understanding of the argument!
The Liquid Tensor Experiment points to a future where machines, rather than replacing human mathematicians, become our indispensable partners. Whether or not they can take hold of the soul of the fact, they can extend our grasp as we reach for the soul.
Slicing up a knotty problem
That can take the form of "proof assistance," as it did for Scholze, or it can go deeper. In 2018, Lisa Piccirillo, then a PhD student at the University of Texas, solved a long-standing geometry problem about a shape called the Conway knot. She proved the knot was "non-slice" — this is a fact about what the knot looks like from the perspective of four-dimensional beings. (Did you get that? Probably not, but it doesn't matter.) The point is this was a famously difficult problem.
A few years before Piccirillo's breakthrough, a topologist named Mark Hughes at Brigham Young had tried to get a neural network to make good guesses about which knots were slice. He gave it a long list of knots where the answer was known, just as an image-processing neural net would be given a long list of pictures of cats and pictures of non-cats.
Hughes's neural net learned to assign a number to every knot; if the knot were slice, the number was supposed to be 0, while if the knot were non-slice, the net was supposed to return a whole number bigger than 0. In fact, the neural net predicted a value very close to 1 — that is, it predicted the knot was non-slice — for every one of the knots Hughes tested, except for one. That was the Conway knot.
For the Conway knot, Hughes's neural net returned a number very close to 1/2, its way of saying that it was deeply unsure whether to answer 0 or 1. This is fascinating! The neural net correctly identified the knot that posed a really hard and mathematically rich problem (in this case, reproducing an intuition that topologists already had).
Some people imagine a world where computers give us all the answers. I dream bigger. I want them to ask good questions.
Dr. Jordan Ellenberg is a professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin and a number theorist whose popular articles about mathematics have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Wired, and Slate. His most recent book is Shape: The Hidden Geometry of Information, Biology, Strategy, Democracy, and Everything Else.
Laughing gas may be far more effective for some than antidepressants.
- Standard antidepressant medications don't work for many people who need them.
- With ketamine showing potential as an antidepressant, researchers investigate another anesthetic: nitrous oxide, commonly called "laughing gas."
- Researchers observe that just a light mixture of nitrous oxide for an hour alleviates depression symptoms for two weeks.
The usual antidepressants don't work for everyone. That's what makes a new study of the antidepressant properties of nitrous oxide so intriguing. It looks like just a single low dose of what your dentist may call "laughing gas" can help alleviate symptoms of depression for weeks afterward.
The study, from researchers at University of Chicago and Washington University-St. Louis, is published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
Resistance to anti-depression medications
Nitrous oxide: two atoms of nitrogen, one of oxygenCredit: Big Think
According to the senior author of the study, Charles Conway, "A significant percentage — we think around 15 percent — of people who suffer from depression don't respond to standard antidepressant treatment."
"These 'treatment-resistant depression' patients," Conway says, "often suffer for years, even decades, with life-debilitating depression. We don't really know why standard treatments don't work for them, though we suspect that they may have different brain network disruptions than non-resistant depressed patients. Identifying novel treatments, such as nitrous oxide, that target alternative pathways is critical to treating these individuals."
"There is a huge unmet need," says lead author Peter Nagele. "There are millions of depressed patients who don't have good treatment options, especially those who are dealing with suicidality."
If ketamine can help, can nitrous oxide?
Credit: sudok1 / Adobe Stock
The researchers wondered if some of the anti-depression properties seen in ketamine might also apply to nitrous oxide. Nagele explains, "Like nitrous oxide, ketamine is an anesthetic, and there has been promising work using ketamine at a sub-anesthetic dose for treating depression."
The researchers conducted a one-hour session — they describe it as a "proof-of-principle" trial — in which 20 individuals with depression were administered an air mixture with 50 percent nitrous oxide. Twenty-four hours later, the researchers found a significant reduction in the participants' symptoms of depression versus a control group.
However, the individuals also suffered the unpleasant side effects that laughing gas often causes in dental patients: headache, nausea, and vomiting.
Smaller dose, longer effect
Credit: sudok1 / Adobe Stock
"We wondered if our past concentration of 50 percent had been too high," recalls Nagele. "Maybe by lowering the dose, we could find the 'Goldilocks spot' that would maximize clinical benefit and minimize negative side effects."
In a new trial, 20 people with depression were given a lighter nitrous oxide mix, just 25 percent, and the individuals tested reported a 75 percent reduction in side effects compared to the a control group given an air/oxygen placebo. This time, the researchers also tracked the effect of nitrous oxide on symptoms of depression for a far longer period, two weeks instead of just 24 hours.
"The reduction in side effects was unexpected and quite drastic," reports Nagele, "but even more excitingly, the effects after a single administration lasted for a whole two weeks. This has never been shown before. It's a very cool finding."
Nagele also notes that, despite its popular renown as laughing gas, even a light 25 percent mix of nitrous actually causes people to nod off. "They're not getting high or euphoric; they get sedated."
Delivering help to people with depression
Nagele cautions, "These have just been pilot studies. But we need acceptance by the larger medical community for this to become a treatment that's actually available to patients in the real world. Most psychiatrists are not familiar with nitrous oxide or how to administer it, so we'll have to show the community how to deliver this treatment safely and effectively. I think there will be a lot of interest in getting this into clinical practice."
After all, Nagele adds, "If we develop effective, rapid treatments that can really help someone navigate their suicidal thinking and come out on the other side — that's a very gratifying line of research."