In one study, researchers at the University of Michigan and NYU had 102 undergrads complete a task designed to measure innovative thinking. Some of the participants were randomly assigned to complete the task while sitting in a box (constructed of plastic pipe and cardboard) while the other group of participants worked on the task while sitting outside of (but next to) the box. The result? Those sitting outside of the box were significantly more creative in their thinking, arriving at 20% more creative solutions, than those sitting within the box.
We know from other studies that there is a strong mind-body correlation, a link between what our body feels and what we think. Problems we face seem larger if we are holding something heavy in our hands than they do when we hold something light. We feel more positively disposed toward someone when we hold a warm drink in our hand than when holding a cold one. It seems to make an almost intuitive sense then that our minds would feel less restricted if our bodies were seated in a less restrictive space.
Even the outline of a box has an influence on our thinking. In another study, students were given problems to solve and asked to walk while doing so. One group were asked to walk along the lines on the floor, outlining a large square, while the other group was allowed to walk freely. As is now to be expected, the group allowed to wander at will while problem solving did significantly better.
When you look at the popularity of coffee shops around town being used as make-shift office space, perhaps we begin to understand why. Maybe the patrons are not looking for the perfect latte so much as they are looking for a more open environment, conducive to creating the innovative solution they are searching for. A study in the Journal of Consumer Research indicates that working in coffee shops, and other moderately noisy places, also boosts creativity. In this UBC study, over 300 participants were asked to work on creative tasks in one of three environments: nearly silent, moderately loud (about coffee shop loud), and very loud. The participants in the moderately loud environment did better on the creativity tests. Too much noise proved to create a distraction, while a moderate amount served to create a level of processing difficulty (absent from the silent room) that spurred creativity, by enhancing abstract thinking.
The implications of these studies are quite significant and should be considered when you are looking to tackle your to-do list for the day. If you are merely processing information and need to think along linear lines, then perhaps sitting at your desk, in your office or cubicle, is sufficient. When you reach that item on the list that requires more abstract thinking though, you may do well to switch up your environment. Go for a walk, head out to a coffee shop, wander around the cafeteria, sit outside at a picnic table and work. Change your environment to suit the work that you are attempting.
My first book was written primarily at the cottage, on a laptop by the beach. My second book was written largely in coffee shops, wherever I happened to be, before and between client meetings and sessions. Each location suited the type of book I was working on, the way I needed to think, and both were written largely out of the office and away from my desk.
What changes might you need to make to the way you expect to get work done? You may not have control over the office design but you have control over where and how you do your thinking. Suit the environment to the process and the desired result to improve the quality of your thoughts and solutions. As it turns out...
Thinking outside of the box is best accomplished by sitting outside of the box