To Do Better Work, Change Your Environment

How to find your ideal space for focus, collaboration, or creativity

OnOn the first day of his new job at Pittsburgh Municipal Hospital, Jonas Salk was introduced to his office: a basement laboratory, 40 by 40 feet, next to a morgue.

According to reports, the researcher would put in 16-hour days — even on weekends — to work on a polio vaccine. But years after he started, he found himself at a dead end. In his exhaustion, Salk retreated to the monastery at the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi in Italy, a magnificent structure permeated by natural light. That’s where the breakthrough happened. Salk would go on to develop the first successful vaccine against the crippling disease, and become one of the most venerated medical scientists of the century. For the rest of his life, he would insist that something about being in the monastery helped clear his obstructed mind.

Psychological research may help explain Salk’s mental shift. Perhaps the beauty of the monastery put him in a state of awe, allowing him to regain perspective. Or maybe as his brain was processing the new environment, it made a leap in solving the problem he had been stuck on.

You may not be able to pick up and go to a 13th-century Italian sanctuary whenever you hit a mental block, but where you do your work matters. The space where you draft designs, tackle equations, or finesse the dialogue in your latest novel can either thwart your potential, or give you new energy.

Where should you go? That depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.

If you want to promote collaboration, work in a home

While most TV writers might brainstorm ideas in a conventional conference room, the Atlanta writing team wrote much of the show in a rented house (which they called “the Factory”). The informal setting was a natural breeding ground for banter and raw conversations, which they would later incorporate into their scripts. (Atlanta creator Donald Glover has long known the value of working in homes — to write and record his 2013 album Because the Internet, he rented Chris Bosh’s mansion.)

Similarly, hit record producer Max Martin bought a house in Los Angeles solely to work on music with collaborators. “Artists sometimes feel uncomfortable in studios where every hour feels like it costs money,” he said in an interview. He wanted his space to feel different: “I don’t want it too fancy, I want everyone to just relax.”

If you and your team need to connect and collaborate, a home — or, if that’s logistically difficult, a warmer, cozier space that invites relaxation — might be your ideal setting for a brainstorming session. Conversations flow better when you’re lounging on sofas or grabbing slices of pizza over a kitchen counter.

If you need to focus, work in an isolated space

Working in an environment that feels like home might relax you, but in some cases, what you really need is to persevere without distractions. That’s when an isolated space can set you up to succeed.

When author J.K. Rowling was wrestling with her final Harry Potter books, she got a room in the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland, to escape from the noise of her daily life. In an interview with Oprah, Rowling explained, “As I was finishing Deathly Hallows, there came a day where the window cleaner came, the kids were at home, the dogs were barking, and I could not work and this lightbulb went on over my head and I thought, ‘I can throw money at this problem. I can now solve this problem.’” She didn’t intend to work in the hotel room for an extended period of time, but her writing was going so well that she kept going back.

She’s not the only notable person who routinely cocoons herself from the rest of the world. Singer-songwriter Ester Dean needs to be by herself in the studio when she writes. Bill Gates conducts his famous “Think Weeks” alone in the forest. To write his first memoir, Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama flew to Bali solo for five weeks.

You don’t need to take such a drastic step, but seeking out a solitary environment (read: not an open office plan) can help you make significant progress on your work. If your workplace isn’t set up for that, make do with what you have — find a conference room for those stretches when you really need to put your head down, or ask if you can work from home to meet a pressing deadline.

If you need to spark creativity, hit the road

While isolated spaces can help you generate output, they don’t always inspire new ideas. For that, try taking a field trip.

There’s evidence that “perceived spatial distance” from a task can spark creativity, but you don’t necessarily need to travel a long distance to view a problem from a whole different lens. If you want chaos and excitement, you could spend a weekend in a bustling city, or you could just visit a bus terminal. If you want to learn about a different culture, you might start with a new cuisine, or visit a new neighborhood. As Scott Barry Kaufman, the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Imagination Institute and author of Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, once explained: “Unusual experiences are good for the brain.”

The next time you feel overwhelmed by a never-ending to-do list, or confused by the purpose of your project, or frustrated that your team is hitting a roadblock, consider the power of your environment. Sometimes, to unlock your best work, you simply need a change in scenery.

I write about personal and collective growth. Author ‘There Is No Right Way to Do This’

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