To Do Better Work, Change Your Environment
How to find your ideal space for focus, collaboration, or creativity
On 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.)