Doing the Same Thing in Different Places

The older we get, the more quickly time moves. It’s thought that this happens because our brain creates less new memories as we age. (Remember how long each school year felt as a kid?)

Have you noticed, for example, that when you go on vacation somewhere new, time slows down for the first few days? That’s because your brain is absorbing a lot of new information. “Our brain encodes new experiences, but not familiar ones, into memory,” Scientific American explains, “and our retrospective judgment of time is based on how many new memories we create over a certain period.”

So if you start to get acclimated to your surroundings while you’re on vacation (for instance, you stay at the same accommodation the entire time), you’ll likely find that the trip starts going more quickly, and before you know it, you’re back home!

To that end, I’ve stopped being precious about where I work, because I realized how much my work actually benefits from a change of scenery, and how much holding on to the familiar might be holding me back.

For creative purposes, switching things up has tangible benefits. It’s thought to encourage neuroplasticity. Writes the Atlantic:

“Neural pathways are influenced by environment and habit, meaning they’re also sensitive to change. New sounds, smells, language, tastes, sensations, and sights spark different synapses in the brain and may have the potential to revitalize the mind.”

In a study of creative directors at fashion houses cited in that article, “those who had lived and worked in more than three countries…tended to show higher levels of creativity that those who hadn’t worked abroad at all.”

But for most of us, “abroad” might just mean two neighborhoods over, or outside instead of inside. This is the beauty of our increasingly mobile world. You may have your side hustle ritual tied to a particular coffee shop (as I did for two years), but why not try working in a garden, a museum, or my personal favorite, in someone else’s house?

When I was on vacation in Utah recently, I made a point to work (yeah, I worked on vacation) at a different coffee shop every day. In New York, I pinball between coffee shops in my neighborhood in Brooklyn and a favorite spot in the Financial District (it’s called Black Fox, check it out). Three simple benefits I’ve found to pinballing around town with my laptop:

  1. You meet new people. My boss Gary is always telling us to work in the kitchen of our office instead of at our desks so that we meet coworkers we wouldn’t ordinarily come into contact with. New environments means new people, and different kinds of people, depending on where you’re working. You never know what kinds of conversations or opportunities might arise from being somewhere different.
  2. You try new things. Coffee, food, seating arrangements, bathroom hand soap. You might learn something new. That’s good for your brain. Don’t resist it!
  3. Serendipity fuels creativity. If you’re the type of person who will sit working on something for three hours and only crack it when you get up to go to the bathroom, you’ll probably benefit from a change of scenery on a daily, or at least weekly, basis.
  4. You’ll fall back in love with what you do. No guarantees with this one, but I’ve personally seen some positive effects here. I know I have to stick to a daily writing quota, but why not incentivize myself by achieving that quota somewhere new?

For the students, the freelancers, even the full-timers: you might have a routine or a ritual around your work that you believe yields the highest output, but I really recommend playing around with this superstition, boiling it down to its essence. You might call this a minimalist approach to a work routine. Try changing everything except the tools you absolutely need to be productive: notebook, laptop, favorite pen, good headphones, and of course coffee.

What’s your work non-routine? Tell me more.

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