Productivity Self Improvement

Low-Tech Your Desk to Increase Productivity & Problem-Solving

Dann Albright 07-08-2015

Is your desk full of electronic devices?


Do you have a laptop dock, a tablet, work and personal cell phones, a Bluetooth headset The Beginner's Guide to Buying the Right Bluetooth Headset The dirty little secret to buying the perfect Bluetooth headset is that there is no "perfect" headset. Read More , and a portable gaming system all within easy reach? If you do, you might be compromising your productivity and creative problem-solving skills. These devices are great tools, but they may be holding you back while you’re at your desk.

Digital Distraction

Everyone’s heard about the studies suggesting that we’re getting worse at paying attention to things Reclaim Your Focus: 5 Ideas To Deal With Short Attention Spans We have more information available than every before, but this ironically has damaged our ability to absorb any of it. However, you can take action to improve your attention with a few simple steps. Read More because of the constant stream of information available to us in the form of social media and mobile connectivity. Even though there are now studies contradicting those claims, this issue has wider-ranging effects than just our ability to focus on a single thing.


An under-appreciated effect of all of these devices is that they make it much harder to let your mind wander. When your brain isn’t engaged with a specific task — like checking your email, scrolling through Twitter, or seeing if your friends have played their turn in Words with Friends — it’s able to make connections between previously unrelated thoughts, ideas, and memories. And this often results in creative insights.

For this reason, having a desk covered in high-tech devices that can send you information can be detrimental to your performance at work, whether you’re a writer, an architect, a nurse, or a digital marketer. A 2014 study (PDF) found that participants received, on average, 63.5 notifications per day, and those notifications were usually viewed within a few minutes.


This is the kind of distraction that not only keeps you from focusing your attention on a single task, but also prevents you from letting your mind wander when it would be beneficial. This double-barreled effect means that you could be losing a lot of productivity and creativity when you’re at your desk.

Let’s face it — as Justin pointed out in his article about why he doesn’t own a smartphone Why This Technology Blogger Does Not Own a Smartphone [Opinion] "Do you have a smartphone yet?" It's a question my friends ask often, and it's a reasonable one to ask. I make my entire living writing about technology, explaining how to use software and interviewing... Read More  — those notifications are rarely important.

Creating an Effective Desk Space

So what’s the solution? An ultra-minimal desk space with a no-devices rule — with an exception for your computer—will help you stay focused, but might not give you the stimuli you need to encourage creative thinking.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating for a spartan office (though minimalism does have its benefits How To Be An Effective Minimalist In Your Daily Life More and more people are choosing to embrace minimalism. In certain situations this can wreak frustrating havoc on your everyday life. With some minimal planning it doesn't have to come to that. Read More ).


Instead, I think we should strive for workspaces that let us concentrate on our current task, but also provide the right kinds of distractions when we need a break from whatever we’re working on.


And while there are plenty of ideas on how to create a desk space like this, I propose that the addition of a few simple objects to your desk can create a maximally effective and creative workspace. What if you could keep a few things on your desk or in your drawers that could increase your creativity and give you a pleasurable distraction when you need one? Would you want to have some of those objects around?

You can, and it’s easy. Those objects exist, and they’re easy to find. I’m talking about toys.


Yes, toys. You might be scoffing, but stick with me here for a moment. Toys — the right kinds of toys — can engage multiple areas of the brain, distract you from your current task for long enough to let your brain come up with some interesting ideas, and even help relieve some stress Stop. Breathe. Relax. 7 iOS Apps To Relieve Stress What a stressful day! We all have them from time to time, and while the best possible way to relax (at least in my book) is to leave everything and take a walk outside, this... Read More , which psychologist Robert Epstein calls “a well-known creativity killer.”

Low-Tech Toys, Problem Solving, and Creativity

Many people who study creativity support the thought that play is important for creative ideation. And that it’s under-utilized, especially in the often sterile modern office environment. Scientists in the emerging field of embodied cognition are finding that physical movements can affect how we think, which is why fidgeting — a form of playing—has been linked to improved focus and increased creative thinking The Top 5 Websites To Spark Your Creativity Read More .

The argument seems clear: replace your phone, tablet, and other electronic devices on your desk with toys that encourage movement and creative thinking. Playing games on your phone just isn’t going to do it, partially because it’ll still expose you to the notifications that are killing productivity and partially because it doesn’t take advantage of the link between movement and creativity.

So what you should replace those devices with? Here are seven ideas to help you choose a fun desk toy or two to get started.


Fidget Widget ($2)


If you feel the need to fidget with your hands, give the Fidget Widget a go: it’s a series of painted wooden blocks connected by an elastic cord that can be contorted into a wide variety of shapes, and will engage the spatial part of your brain.

Squigz ($23)


These little suction cups stick to each other and any flat, non-porous surface, so you can build anything you can imagine out of them! Build a tree, a robot, a spaceship, a starfish, or a tower. The possibilities are endless.

Magformers ($34)


Who doesn’t like playing with magnets? Magformers are magnetic shapes that you can link up to form whatever you want, and if you lay them out flat and pick them up from a central point, they’ll form up into your shape. How cool is that?

Free Play Magnatab ($37)


Doodling is a great form of play, and the Magnatab gives you a fun new way to doodle. Just draw the magnetic stylus over the board and bring beads to the surface to create your masterpiece. Like an Etch-a-Sketch, but way easier to use.

Komboloi (varies)


One of the oldest and simplest fidget toys, this is my current toy of choice. A series of beads suspended on a loop of string, the komboloi is perfect for restless hands, and makes a very satisfying clacking sound. In some cultures, they are also called “worry beads”.

Katamino Deluxe ($43)


If you like to solve puzzles, Katamino is a perfect desk game — try to fit the pentominoes into the space provided. Start with a smaller space for an easier challenge, and increase the space and number of bricks to up the level of difficulty.

Tegu Magnetic Wooden Blocks ($35)


Another building toy, this one combines magnets with colored blocks of wood, and lets you create an endless sequence of fun things, from animals and plants to cars and rockets.

Get to Work!

Being surrounded by technology may be useful when it comes to having a lot of tools at your disposal, but it can compromise the most important tool you have: your brain. Instead of having a bunch of electronic devices on your desk, replace them with creative toys that encourage imaginative play. You’ll have more fun, be less stressed, and increase productivity and creativity. What more could you ask for?

What are your favorite desk toys? Have you tried any of the ones listed above? What do you do when you feel the need to fidget or let your mind wander? Share your thoughts below!

Image Credits: Consideration Via Shutterstock, Top view of office table top, Portrait of young woman working at her desk via Shutterstock.

Related topics: Creativity, Productivity, Stress Management, Toys.

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  1. Anonymous
    August 7, 2015 at 9:16 pm

    The problem with these toys is that to use them you have to concentrate. When you concentrate on anything, your mind will not wander. To have the mind wander, you must engage in a "mindless" activity that the body can perform on autopilot - stare at the wall, stare out the window, bend and unbend a paper clip, roll a pencil between your fingers, etc.

    • Dann Albright
      August 13, 2015 at 1:15 pm

      I see you point—and that's definitely true for most of them (I'd say the Fidget Widget and komboloi are pretty mindless). Not everyone needs something that's totally mindless, though; sometimes I find that concentrating on something else that isn't related to what I'm working on (or as mentally taxing) can provide a needed boost. Getting your brain to work in a different way can start making those mental connections that lead to breakthroughs.

      In the end, everyone needs to find what works best for them!