07/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How To Dig Your Office Cave

Why a fresh approach to designing your personal workspace nourishes your talents and ambitions and increases your productivity.

Jobs and pay are being cut and slashed like the Brazilian rainforest, opportunities for advancement vanishing like the Polar ice cap. What's a smart worker to do?

Dig a Cave. Maybe two.

Cave Dwelling protected our distant forebears from the elements, offering safety from Saber Tooth Tigers, along with opportunities for creative outlets, like cave painting.

Modern workers need Caves too.

You're probably crammed into cookie cutter cubes or shoehorned into a bullpen, with little sanctuary from corporate predators. If you're lucky enough to have a door and an office -- odds are it's barely big enough to turn around in.

In I Hate People!, the book I co-wrote with Marc Hershon, we found overwhelming evidence that workers are under attack. Recent studies have proven conclusively that open office plans injure productivity. Interruptions are out of control. Our book describes the primitives wrecking your day: Minute Man, who just wants a minute of your day, and another minute; Know-It-None, who knocks you off task by pelting you with inane facts they've picked up from stray blogs. Or the more subtle, pervasive threat: the vast herds of corporate Sheeple that spread out in every direction, men and women who "love meetings" and only "perform approved work tasks."

To escape these office oafs, Dig your Cave to create a safe place to do what you never seem to have enough time for today -- actually getting your work done.

1. Give Your Cave Personality

Reject the lame recruiters who advise stripping your office or cube of all that is you. We've visited some of the coolest companies on the planet -- Google, Pixar and IDEO. These companies value workers who celebrate their achievements and interests -- whether work related or passions or hobbies. At the design strategy firm IDEO it's perfectly acceptable to have a sail, bike or surfboard over your cube. Collections of exotic products are considered normal. The key is to imagine that your cube or office is your tree fort or secret clubhouse. Fill it with things and images that inspire and support your work and passions. Maybe the office Spreadsheet (the resident stickler for the rules) won't let you hang a surfboard, but good Caves reflect their Cave dweller's personality. Introduce design and touches of color that embody your personal brand. This is not about spending money - it's about caring about the place where you spend a large chunk of your life.

2. Respect Your Cave's Privacy

There's a reason CEOs have offices with doors and guard dogs (executive assistants) to keep intruders at bay. They need to get an enormous amount of work done, and if they frittered away the day with visitors and phone calls and e-mails, they'd just be treading water. Unless your career goal is to captain the office softball team, make certain that your Cave clearly communicates that you are someone with a lot of work to do. That means shutting your door, or putting up subtle notices that you value concentrated work. We have our own line of Productivity Tools, including the I Hate People! Do Not Disturb sign. But if that's too in your face, consider pinning up Jean-Paul Sartre's tried and true saying, "Hell is other people." Many wise Cave dwellers who lack real doors often install curtains made out of fashionable fabric, clear beads, or old computer chips. Sometimes these barriers are see-thru, sometimes they are not. The key is to reduce the chance that Minute Man or Know-It-None will make your day go down the drain with interruptions. Out of Sight = Out of Mind. Headphones never hurt. You don't even have to be listening to anything.

3. Dig Caves Wherever You Go

Hundreds of thousands of people laid off in recent months know digging a Cave is key to getting back on your feet. But a Cave is not a desk in your bedroom. Whether you just got fired or wish to avoid ending up in the bread lines, it's essential that you become a serial Cave digger. And not only in your "official" office. Find that Starbucks or cafe or library where you can get stuff done. Tip generously and snag the power table with a plug and room to stretch out. If you've lived in the cubes so long that you can't imagine working without constant interruptions, a busy cafe may be a good fit. Libraries are often better suited to Cave denizens looking to finish a report or brainstorm.

Oh, and even those with a Corporate Cave need the Home Cave. That's where what you really need is protection from that well-intentioned threat to a modern Cave dweller. The individual most likely to shatter your impending creative breakthrough with a demand that you wash your damn coffee mug or pick up your foul underwear.

Yes, your significant other.

Basements, attics, garages and dusty backyard sheds highly recommended. Do Not Disturb signs essential. Before leaving home ground and entering Home Cave announce in a friendly voice, "I am going to the Cave. Happy to help out with dishes and housework after I put in three hours."

"Love you!"

Jonathan Littman is the co-author of the new book I HATE PEOPLE! (Little, Brown and Company; June 2009) with Marc Hershon. A Contributing Editor at Playboy, Jonathan is the co-author of the best selling Art of Innovation.