How Varying Your Work Environment Spurs Creativity

This morning, I felt an outright aversion to just going to my desk and starting my work. This is an indication that I am about to get stuck with a problem and need some change of scenery to get my creative juices flowing. So I packed my computer and went to a nearby outdoor café. The café is situated under trees along a small river, providing for a very different view, different sounds, and different smells. Sitting there with a cup of coffee and just looking around, I felt like in another world. And this is just 5 minutes from my desk.

Vary your work environment: outdoor cafes foster creativity.

Does this sound familiar to you? Maybe you prefer going for a stroll through town or a walk in the park or forest when you need to get some new ideas or fresh insight into a problem you have been pondering?

I know why I like sitting at the table with the blue table cloth. I get to gaze into the distance. I have an unimpeded view of the stream, the sky, and the iron bridge, yet at the same time I feel protected, I am in the shade, and I am shielded from prying eyes.

Well, after sitting there for an hour and a half, brainstorming, taking notes, and looking at the scenery, the noise coming from an angle grinder at a nearby construction site started to annoy me. I wanted to turn inward to play with my new ideas. I was longing for the peace and quiet of my room, so I packed my bag and returned to my desk. That’s where I am sitting now. Now It feels just right sitting there and doing my work.

What do I make of this? There is no single perfect environment to do creative work.

And there are good reasons, why you might want to vary your work environment to be more creative and productive.

1. Our memories are tied to our environmental context. There is a good line of research on how reinstating a context, either physically or mentally, helps you to remember what you have learned in that context. Recalling information in a different environment tends to lead to a worse memory performance.

This is good news, If you are trying to find a novel solution for a challenge! You may not want to continue thinking along the same lines.

Having pondered over a problem at your desk, continuing your thinking at your workstation can lead to cognitive fixation. Your workstation might cue the same associations and thus reinforce more of the same kind of thinking. By removing these familiar cues and replacing them with some novel stimuli, you encourage different cognitive processing. This can help you to think more laterally and leave the proverbial box.

Always sitting at your desk leads to cognitive fixation.

2. Many creative solutions are the result of connecting seemingly unrelated ideas. For this “connecting” to happen, you need some form of stimulation. You can help this process, for example, by connecting an idea with a random stimulus and using this as a springboard for new ideas. Random stimulation is a basic ingredient of many creativity techniques. Where to look for new stimuli? Well, you could go to the café in the park like I do, or you could go to the food court in a nearby shopping center or the cafeteria of an art museum (they often have high ceilings) and sit there for a while.

3. Creativity is a process: We need the input from diverse physical environments for the raw material and to overcome fixation. However, we also need to take a step back and provide the time and space to form connections. We often turn inwards when we imagine something or speculate on the outcome of an experiment. We conduct mental simulations and envision what is likely going to happen.

To do this effectively, I need both stimulation, and peace and quiet. So I went away from the angle grinder and back to my desk. On days where I really don’t fancy returning to my desk at all, I engage in coffee shop hopping. I move from the outdoors to one of the quiet, relaxed coffee shops on my shortlist.

Call me geeky, but sometimes I further limit my sensory input by putting on earmuffs and closing my eyes or wearing an eye mask. Some masks don’t touch your eye lids, so you can keep your eyes open and it’s still pitch black.

What does the science say?

High ceilings encourage exploration and abstract thinking

In recent years, more and more research is being conducted to assess the influence of different environmental features on creative work.

One study investigated the impact of multi-day immersion in nature on creative problem solving. Hikers who had already been in nature for three days performed about 50% better than a control group on the RAT test (a test commonly used to measure creativity).

The evidence with shorter periods of exposure to nature is somewhat more mixed. When researchers embellished an office environment with plants, visual creativity was significantly improved, while verbal creativity was unchanged.

Interestingly, rooms with high ceilings and rooms with dim or indirect lighting also tend to spur creativity. Higher ceilings instill a sense of freedom and encourage exploration and abstract thinking, while dimly and indirectly lit rooms allow people to feel less inhibited.

According to one study, moderate ambient noise (as experienced in a roadside restaurant) of around 70 dB also boosts creativity and leads to a greater acceptance of innovative products. The study suggests that the additional processing demands caused by moderate noise levels nudge people towards more abstract thinking. 70 dB is about the noise level you would experience in an average coffee shop.

Become aware of your needs, vary the environment, and get enough sunlight during the day.

Personally, I find varying where I work even more important than optimizing my work place. Being unconfined in nature, in a large food court with high ceilings, or in Hong Kong’s international airport helps me to expand my focus and engage in blue-sky thinking.

Restricting my environment serves to reflect and further build on my initial ideas. I often change the setting multiple times while working on a challenge that requires a creative solution.

What’s more, when I wake up with an aversion to working at my desk and force myself, my stress levels are going to be higher. Stress, however, leads to a more narrow focus and confined thinking. This is exactly what you don’t want when trying to come up with your next great idea. It is what you want to escape a tiger.

Making nature and sunlight a part of our working day also serves another purpose. It helps to regulate our circadian clock and improve our sleep. One study found that people working under daylight exposure slept on average 46 minutes more than a control group. Sufficient sleep is directly related to happiness and an increased work output.

Do you change your work place during the day to be more creative? Where do you go to escape your office or cubicle? Share your experience as a comment.


Notes:

  • Image credits: Office environment (cropped) and Sony Center Berlin, Germany by tpsdave via Pixabay.com

Bibliography:

  • Atchley, Ruth Ann, David L. Strayer, and Paul Atchley. “Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings.” PLOS ONE 7, no. 12 (December 12, 2012): e51474. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051474.
  • Boubekri, Mohamed, Ivy N. Cheung, Kathryn J. Reid, Chia-Hui Wang, and Phyllis C. Zee. “Impact of Windows and Daylight Exposure on Overall Health and Sleep Quality of Office Workers: A Case-Control Pilot Study.” Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, June 15, 2014. doi:10.5664/jcsm.3780.
  • Mehta, Ravi, Rui Juliet Zhu, and Amar Cheema. “Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition.” Journal of Consumer Research 39, no. 4 (2012): 784–799.
  • Meyers-Levy, Joan, and Rui Zhu. “The Influence of Ceiling Height: The Effect of Priming on the Type of Processing That People Use.” Journal of Consumer Research 34, no. 2 (2007): 174–186.
  • Steidle, Anna, and Lioba Werth. “Freedom from Constraints: Darkness and Dim Illumination Promote Creativity.” Journal of Environmental Psychology 35 (September 2013): 67–80. doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2013.05.003.
  • Studente, Sylvie, Nina Seppala, and Noemi Sadowska. “Facilitating Creative Thinking in the Classroom: Investigating the Effects of Plants and the Colour Green on Visual and Verbal Creativity.” Thinking Skills and Creativity 19 (2016): 1–8.

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