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Creating spaces to be your best self

Every fortnight, we hand over the blog to one of the London Shapers, to give you a flavour of what they do, how they think and what's really going on in our hearts and minds. Today's piece comes from Michelle Cheng who is a spatial designer and co-founder of Commonly.

Lockdown has made a lot of us hyper-aware of the amount of time we spend indoors. It’s been interesting to contrast this sudden awareness with the conveniently forgotten fact that prior to COVID-19, people were already spending on average 90% of their day indoors.

The environments we find ourselves in has a huge impact on our wellbeing. There are now countless research studies globally looking at all the different factors that environments can play a part in shaping our lives, from increasing speed of recovery in hospitals, reducing crime in communities to optimising productivity in offices and schools.

Likewise, our home environment can have a measurable effect on our physical and mental health. It’s true that there are a lot of factors that are out of our control right now, but it’s also a great opportunity to be more attentive to the factors that are within our control. A big part of this is our immediate environment. Be observant of how your surroundings may be affecting you and take control of the space you’re in to optimise it for your needs.

Everyone is different, but here are some environmental factors that we can be in control of that have proven impact on our wellbeing:

1. Getting the basics right.

As biological creatures, we’re instinctively seeking connections to our natural world. While the man-made, built environment has made our lives more convenient in many ways, it’s also allowed us to be easily disconnected from nature. Unlike many office environments where temperature, natural views and desk position is set for us, our home environments offer us flexibility and control.

- Breathe in fresh air. Research carried out by the World Green Building Council has found that an increase in fresh air reduces indoor pollutants and increases productivity by 11%.

- Get plenty of natural light. Our circadian rhythms (body clocks) are intrinsically connected to light and our exposure to different types of light also affects our sleep. Maximising our exposure to sunlight during the day and minimising exposure to artificial light during the evenings can help regulate our sleep patterns and improve sleep quality.

- Look outside. Longer distance views outside windows provide relief from computer screens and written documents. This allow the eyes to adjust and re-focus, which reduces fatigue, headaches and the effects of eye strain in the long term. Attention restoration theory also suggests that views to nature can reduce stress and improve concentration.

2. Pick your position.

- Where you position yourself is important. The key tenet of prospect-refuge theory is that we are most comfortable and productive when we have a good view of our surroundings (prospect) and feel safe (refuge) knowing people won’t sneak up on us from behind. The easiest way to recreate this set-up is with your back to the wall or positioned in a way where you can easily observe movement in and out of your room.

- Notice how you position yourself. Many of our home environments were designed for lounging, dining, sleeping – but not sitting for hours of a day. If you are working from home, try and create an ergonomic environment by paying attention to your posture, gaze, sitting position and desk height. You don’t need expensive set-ups, just be mindful of how your body feels and experiment with different props to raise chair/screen heights until they feel comfortable to you.

- Change where you position yourself. On that note, our bodies were not designed to be sedentary for prolonged hours of the day. Contemporary office design looks at building ‘varieties of postures’ into the work day – from upright sitting at a desk, to standing, lounging, perching and leaning. Don’t feel fixed to being in one location throughout your day and get creative!

3. Create a nurturing and uplifting environment.

In humankind’s quest for functionality, efficiency and convenience, we’ve surrounded ourselves with a built environment that is often times repetitive and monotonous. It’s important to find beauty and joy in your surroundings as places that are aesthetically pleasing to us can improve our wellbeing, behaviour, cognitive function and mood. How you do so is completely up to you. If you’re looking for inspiration, the role of beauty and its impact on us is neatly highlighted in this video, which I would highly recommend.

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