10 Ways to Make your Home Office more Zen

I love the newer Japandi interior design aesthetics. Japandi combines the best of the minimal and neutral Scandi style with that of the Japanese Zen approach. With many of us WFHing (working from home) through Covid-19 lockdowns, how our home office looks, feels and functions is vitally important, and the Japandi and Zen influences in design gives us one way through these times.

With Japandi as your home office design aesthetic you also gain from two philosophies of life. Scandinavian design drives from the hygge principles of warmth and cosiness. And we all want that for an office space we may be forced to spend many hours working in. Zen design speaks to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, which is a little harder to explain.

Basically wabi-sabi has been ingrained in Japanese culture for eons, and is to do with how the Japanese approach and think of beauty. Wabi sabi embraces beauty in the imperfect, and conceptually attempts to bring back our surroundings to the roots of nature. It’s where the old and worn gains the respect, the support and the story it deserves.

Here are ten ways to zenify (word?) your WFH office space (even if it’s a nook or closet).

Source: Dwell.com | Creator: JAAK, Hong Kong

1. Declutter, Minimalise and then Design

Reading a previous post, you may find this controversial of me. As a creative I find I work best with a little mess around me. However, you may not be a writer or artist like me, and the important aspect of any kind of work is where the clutter or mess is. Most of our contemporary design aesthetics celebrate the minimal spaces, as do all Marie Kondo influenced. There is joy in having space to breathe.

So, declutter and minimalise your office workspace. How do you do this if it’s an outright mess? The easy shrug-off answer is one step at a time, but that’s cheating. Either start on the exterior spaces – one shelf at a time, or start with your desk. Clear off, bag, or store until there’s nothing left but for your computer or necessary equipment.

Then, if you’re feeling a little – well, vulnerable, start by putting back just one thing. This will force you to really think about the necessity of that one thing – is it really needed? Or does it – as so many ask now – bring joy? If so, does it have to be there at all, or can you store or display it close by?

Cue: shopping expedition to buy some storage or display shelves. Don’t forget to buy local to support you local businesses through Covid.

Or if you’re really embracing the zen and wabi-sabi then don’t buy new at all. Instead, take a look at those old chests and storage boxes you were about to throw out for the sake of minimalism, and see the story within. Recycle one or two succinct pieces to become storage you are proud of. Hey- why not repurpose? Have some fun and DIY one thing into another thing. That’s very Millennial of you, plus very Wabi-Sabi to create something beautiful of your own.

Minimalisation and decluttering is necessary for your desktop also. If you’re a computer user, be aware of all those power cords, and accessories. Try to hide them away or replace some with wireless editions which you can pop into a drawer when not using them. Keep your desk as empty and clear as possible. Tidy up after use.

All this minimalisation and decluttering has now lead you to organising your most valuable “stuff” and to my uncreative use of one of the oft-used organisation quotes like “an organised mind is an organised life” or something like that.

It’s very zenlike though, to be organised. Check off that one.

Decluttering and minimalising will also provide another benefit. You will have to think about whether you have the right equipment for work. Basically most people need a desk and a good ergonomic chair as a minimum. Some of us (er, hand goes up) are still working from our beds or sofas. While many countries (like my own in Australia) are still providing tax benefits for outfitting all these home offices, it’s time to really think about having one.

And of course, the other benefit of decluttering (aside from finding that large sewing needle you knew was dangerously put down somewhere six months ago, and that bill you hadn’t paid) is that minimal environments are much less distracting.

Now that you’re ready with a decluttered space and some necessary storage, it’s time to design for zen. The Japandi Zen aesthetic for office spaces calls for –

  • Minimal furnishings – less is best. An office can be as simple as a desk, a chair and maybe a pot plant or a personal figurine which embarks joy or memories for you.
  • Mid-toned or warm raw woods or natural elements (think – bamboo or reed woven screens, stone, natural shapes, raw-edge woods, rustic pottery, aged leather)
  • Recycled and worn but meaningfully beautiful accents
  • Balanced modern approach – arrangements of items should be balanced and thought-out. Symmetrical works well so if you have two storage boxes, pair them opposite each other for balance.
  • Modern but comfortable furniture. Or preloved but simple furnishings (obviously neon, futuristic steel, and even art deco glam doesn’t really work well in zen).
  • Colour palette is less modern bright white and more toned down earthy neutrals plus for true zen – some colourways embarking a productive mood (see below).
Source: Skirting Boards.com | BEHR 2020 Colour Trends

2. Think Colour for Mood

If we are going full zen, then colour comes into play.

Although Scandi designs are reknowned for minimal and neutral colours, if your office is slanted towards this, make sure the colour scheme of neutrals is invigorating yet cosy. True Scandi colour palettes are heavy on whites, creams and grays with mid- to light wood tones. Nowadays this means a lot of white can be very soothing and calm, but this is reliant on using textures to provide warmth. Blush pinks or the palest of blues can add warmth or calmness if used to accent the white.

Want to go full-on wabi-sabi? The dull greys of imperfect concrete or plaster fit the bill. Or for painted walls or furniture – think about white-washing. Imperfectionism is key to wabi-sabi, so tone down the walls and really minimise the room itself. Your desk and other furnishings really need be very rustic to style wabi sabi but this may move you away from the scandi elements of modern and functional furniture.

On the other hand, Zen allows for moody but inspiring but calm colours. Jade or shaded greens, tonal deeper blues and velvety wood tones have been shown to enhance efficiency and productivity. The green of nature has been evidenced to make us feel and act more creatively.

That’s why there’s another important element of your work from home office – that of getting out from it. Every day, take a break in nature (walk the dog, sprint through a park, or take your coffee sitting out in your garden) to get your creative vibe on whilst refreshing.

And if it’s raining or you’re sick and must stay at home, then take your good vibes from your office walls, and paint at least one feature wall a nice calm zen colour. The good thing about home offices, whether a full room or a small nook under the stairs, is that they are functionally partioned, enough to play with colours without affecting the entire house aesthetics.

Source Toggl

3. Add Nature with Plants

Zen means plants, but don’t go all jungle-y on this one. A lush tropical room with palms and ferns, monstera plants, figs and ficus may be one design aesthetic but it speaks more towards constant energy rather than the zen-like relaxation you want for productivity.

Humans have an innate desire to be connected with nature, which scientists call ‘biophilia’. Plants reduce stress, clean the air, and are at the very minimum, something to care for.

In a zen office, choose your plants deliberately, sparingly and for their beauty. You may want to even go full-blown Japanesey and include some lucky bamboo, or a bamboo screen. Maybe a spider-plant, perhaps even – dare I suggest it – a bonsai.

Living plants add value in oxygen to your rooms. They are a literal symbol of allowing the space to breathe. I try to grow as many live plants as I can manage, which isn’t saying much lately. So if you are suffering from brown thumb like me, or can’t afford for water spillage over your computer equipment, don’t be scared of introducing a few of those realistic artificial faux-plants you can get nowadays. They can be expensive, but their aesthetics still work when you look at them – green means creativity, remember, and plants relax us too. Or still looking for real and afraid you’ll forget to water them? Go for succulents. Lithops or stone plants are fantastic zen if you have a collection in a small rock garden.

Source:  Studio Wills + Architects via home-designing.com/

4. Let there be Light

Natural light is the best. The passing of natural light through the day is vital to our circadian rhythms and sleep, and through the day, it refreshes us. As anyone who suffers from SAD syndrome knows, getting some actual real light and sunshine is important to our mental and physical health. Even a rainy or snowy few days or weeks may pause your mood for a while.

Hopefully your home office has a window, or at least a skylight. But if you are working from a closet or nook without natural light, then at least get up and move to some light regularly.

Where you do have windows, place your computer screen in the correct spot to reduce glare, and think about window coverings which will temper the harshest periods of light. If you don’t have natural light, consider providing spot lights and other task lighting, perhaps even daylight lamps – you can get some which cycle through natural-daylight cycles.

The key here is not to provide mood lighting. Some zen-like environments are heavy on mood, with darker settings for relaxation. The zen-office, on the other hand, is about productivity, so don’t dim the lights down and put yourself to sleep. The key is a well-lit space. Studies have now found that areas within the thalamus region of the brain known for processing the inputs from our retinas are also responsible for regulating our emotional responses which are sent to other areas in our body.

This one ticks all the boxes – bonzai plants, a fish aquarium, water feature and humidifier on a desktop. Source: Amazon

5. Let there be Water

To many people zen means water – a fountain, a well, even essential oil diffuser . In this theme, water signifies nature, and zen of all philosophies, invokes natural elements. In fact, like plants, evaporating water provides health benefits. Studies have shown that negative ions emitted into the air from waterfalls, fountains and other open water features cleanse the air and make it more refreshing for you to breathe. The clean air enhances your concentration and improves health.

The sound of running water has been found to benefit brainstorming and problem-solving. Ambient water sounds like rain or thunderstorms are also used to induce sleep. But combine dripping water sounds with trains running over a track and you create a soundscape for productive work.

For me, running water invokes beauty, yes, but it also means I feel the need to make more trips to the bathroom. There are ways around that however by using a more static water feature. Some ideas below –

  • A very small water feature – shelf-size, like a rock fountain, run by a battery. Rocks and gravel mean the water is just bubbling and not splashing or running.
  • An aromatherapy mister (choose your essential oils wisely for productivity).
  • Hey – a two-fer! A hydroponic plant – grow a plant in a vase of water to show the roots as well as the plant above.
  • A small beta fish and tank.
  • A picture or painting of water.
  • And lastly, if you really can’t find a space for real water, try going digital with ambient water sounds, or watery images on your screensaver.

Can’t find a place for a small water feature? Then go for the health benefits of imbibing the stuff. Get a clear glass pitcher and fill it with water, add in some ice and some fruit to make it look nice, and sit it near your desk. You can look at it, admire it, and hey – drink it. Bonus brownie points in getting all the benefits of H2O.

Warning: water and electrical equipment don’t mix. Place your water feature safely away from your computers and other equipment. And if you have pets like cats who can hop up on your desk, also consider this aspect, especially if you have a fish.

Desktop Monitor Stand with fan by Coolview | Image via Kensington.

6. Control your Temperature

This one is a bit of trial and analytics, and comes with experience. You don’t want your office to be too hot (er, is that you sleeping at your desk?) or too cold (chilly fingers make for chilly letters?).

Some studies explained here have found that the biggest complaint of office workers is around temperature. The ultimate temperature for productivity has been found to be 71.6oF/22oC, but some people are comfortable at 68 and some at 74, so finding your personal temperature is, as suggested above, a test. The good thing with a home office is it’s (normally) all yours.

My office is the only room in the house without an air conditioner unit so in peak summer with 40oC heat or chilly winter days of around 10oC, there is a problem. On other less intense days through all seasons, we can control the office temperature simply by opening or shutting doors and windows or using good old fashioned heaters or fans or even lap rugs. But on those high or low days, we abandon the office for better climate control found elsewhere. My point? If you can’t control your temperature, then provide a backup office space where you can.

Source: Pinterest

7. Add Some Self-Care Incentives

Before 2020 hit us all designers and builders were forecasting a new trend, the zen den. This trend became reality over the course of the last 18 months. More and more households are now including a room, or outside studio dedicated to self care aspects like meditation or yoga. If you look up houses for sale lately you are just as likely to find a yoga studio as a home gym. The importance of self care is never so relevant as in these pandemic times.

In very small spaces it may not be possible to include a full zen den, but at least ensure you have ready access to self-care breaks. In larger zen offices, it’s a great idea to provide incentives for taking these breaks and looking after yourself. For some this may be laying a rug and cushion down on the floor, ready for some stretching exercises or maybe some yoga.

For others, it may be the addition of an essential oils diffuser, scented candles or joss-sticks to provide a time of meditative practise. Fragrances like lavender and lemon relax you, while bitter orange and jasmine invigorate. Citrus will give you an energy-boost. You can now also buy blends of oils called things like Ocean Breeze created for specific reasons such as calming you or energising you. Heck, even oils for dogs are now available for specific soothing. On that note, some essential oil aromas are irritating or toxic to pets, so do your research.

My ideal office would include a space nearby for a walking machine (for rainy days) or other gym equipment, and dare I say it – access to a good coffee making machine. Yes, in my world a good coffee is an invigorating smell. My must-have list for my home office also includes the ability to open up a door directly from the office space to walk out and sit in nature. Fresh air, mmmmm.

Adding stretching or exercising incentives is one of those healthy things to make our bodies – and our GPs’ proud. Research studies have shown that moving your body is truly powerful- not only from a healthy body and longevity perspective, obviously, but the blood flow also channels through to your brain, providing greater concentration and productivity levels. (Can I take you back to Points 2 and 3 above, where I recommended you go and take breaks or even walk or run in nature. Do it, just do it.)

Note – if having gym equipment in your supposedly zen-minimalist office seems contrary to you, then remember – it’s your zen, and your mood. If running on a trainer helps you think whilst keeping you fit, then you’ve found the flow of zen. If on the other hand, puffing along on a walker and worrying about how many jiggly bits you have is your thing (Um… yeah) then maybe putting the gym walker a little away from your desk might be the way to go.

Source: Grovemade Wood Headphone Stand

8. Zen out your Distractions

Nothing kills zen like a good family distraction. Screaming kids, vomiting dogs, missing toilet paper cricises – some of these things just have to be dealt with at the time, but a lot doesn’t. A big chunk of your credentials as office zen master is found in controlling potential distractions from your work environment.

This is a much larger topic than number eight on this tips list. It involves tools like enforcing some office time with your family, maybe putting out a “Do not Disturb” sign on the door, setting family or sharing time into a meeting during your work day, using internet turn-off apps on your computer, or even using tools like noise-cancelling headphones. Whatever methods you use, at all costs protect the calmness and tranquility of your home office space.

Source: Man of Many. Yes, Zen Offices can be manly too.

9. Create a Soundscape

Following on from Tip 8, we are now talking full-on control of your sounds. I spoke above of ambient sounds (rain, thunderstorm etc). Many writers I know enjoy the sound of a coffee shop or cafe. They even go there to write. Or if you’re like me and find a full-on real life cafe distracting, there are apps which give you ambient background sounds of a cafe which you can play while you work.

A zen office doesn’t mean you need to go down the route of monk-chants or buddhist bells. (Unless you are a monk or a buddhist and find those sounds invigorating). For some people the simple trinkling sound of a waterfall feature or running water might be what they like to hear.

For others, like me, I prefer other background noises which soothe me. As a teen I used to study for exams with walkmans playing the latest pop music (Yes, walkmans – look them up!). This means that for me, the most non-distractive white-noise sounds which still make me comfortable are either from repetitive popular radio or television stations. I find complete silence wholly distracting. So inane afternoon television shows are my own zen vibe.

Others may get on with non-lyrical soundtracks, jazz or classical playlists (most people have heard that Beethoven is great for brainwaves) , or ambient sound apps or websites. For true productivity it may also be beneficial to look to our scientific studies again, and brain knowledge. Try out solfeggio frequencies which some suggest provide help with chronic pain or binaural beats to reduce anxiety and provide positive thoughts. Do a search in streaming services and you’ll find plenty of all of the above.

Source: Darice via BalconyGardenWeb

10. Finally, have some zen fun!

A zen-like mood for your work at home experience means focused, distraction-free work in a high-quality but restful and naturally beautiful environment. If you nail this, your work will be less stressful and you may find you love spending those hours at work.

But even with zen minimalism and the function of work, there is still room for some fun. Providing you still have room, and your office space remains calm, consider adding something which makes you smile. Some final ideas below.

  • Do the stereotypical thing and add a little office zen garden. Here’s a list of 13 DIY Mini Zen Gardens you can make. You can even find some mini rakes for sand gardens.
  • Rather than buying a bonsai, try growing and grooming one from scratch. Or if you’re a brown thumb, build one in lego.
  • Dabble in feng shui and setout your office space for good (wealth/ success/health/career?) energy vibes.
  • Go retro and add one of those newton’s ball cradles, or another fidget or kinetic desk toy.
  • Add a little desk terrarium, then hide a toy dinosaur or dragon in it.
  • Play with a zen artist canvas – you paint on these with water and then watch your creations or words disappear. Reusable, and apparently meditative and not frustrating at all to see your work disappear (said the writer).
  • For your office sounds, install one of those floating magnatized speakers and admire the levitation.
  • Buy some monk bells and ring them everytime you finish for the day.
  • Instead of a bonsai, get a grass-head plant. When your grass has died, plant mini-herbs in it.
  • Get a stone stacking desktop kit – or go to the beach and choose your own.
  • Explore the world of adult colouring books, especially zentangle patterns. Better yet, get an artbook and draw your own zentangles or mandellas.
  • Add meaning to your desk or shelves by including one good heritage storage box, jewelry chest or antique wooden box. Inside, hide some treats, or some of these smaller fun desk toys. Or letters or pictures which have great meaning for you.
Zen Office Fun Moodboard via Pacific-Blues com

Shop from Amazon (clockwise from middle left) –Loosnow Hydroponic Glass Planter Bulb Vase | NCYP Geometric Decorative Terrarium | Desktop Fountain Waterfall | BangBangDa Japanese Tabletop Meditation Zen Garden | LEGO® Creator Expert Bonsai Tree 10281 Building Kit } Lightweight Newton’s Cradle | Zen Artist Board | Levitating Globe Bluetooth Speaker

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