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Is your desk full of electronic devices?
Do you have a laptop dock, a tablet, work and personal cell phones, a Bluetooth headset, 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.
Everyone’s heard about the studies suggesting that we’re getting worse at paying attention to things 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 — 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).
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, 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 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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”.
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.
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!