When you hit that afternoon slump at your desk, maybe it’s not an issue of getting another cup of coffee—maybe you need to change your environment. Some of the most frustrating roadblocks to creativity can stem from being in a static environment. Whether you’re at the office or working remotely, being in the same old space for hours at a stretch can drain you of your creative juices. On this episode, we explore why your surroundings play such a crucial role in your creative process, the folly of chasing Silicon Valley-esque playgrounds, and how to make small changes to your environment for a big boost in creativity.
When new meets old
To understand how to maximize creativity based on location, it’s important to first understand why location plays such an integral role in the creative process to begin with.
“New ideas arise from an interconnection of old ideas. So that means, at the very least, you have to be exposed to a novel stimulus,” says Robert Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research. “It gets you thinking thoughts and combinations that you’ve never experienced before. It’s those interconnections among different ideas. That’s where new ideas come from. And your environment helps to create those interconnections. And the good news is, to some extent, we all can control our surroundings.”
No change is too small
If you’re working a job where it’s frowned upon or just impossible to leave for a few hours to work at a coffee shop or alternative workspace, Epstein says that making even the most minor tweaks to just your desk or office (adding flowers, rearranging your items, etc.) can have the same effect of jumpstarting your mind as physically leaving the office.
“The enemy is whatever is static. So just making changes sometimes, very small changes, can make a huge difference,” Epstein says. “For example, a strange-looking rock—I sometimes just put it on my desk because it’s different. It’s unusual. It’s interesting to look at. You never know what’s gonna happen when you introduce some changes and you introduce some novelty. The classic example of that is bringing together two friends who are very different from each other and who’ve never met.”
The pitfall of Silicon Valley playgrounds
Silicon Valley has long been the mood board for companies looking to rev up creativity by adding a touch of whimsy around the office. Board games, foosball tables, beer on tap—the idea is to create an environment that doesn’t feel like a sterile office (and to entice you never to leave the building, but that’s for another podcast episode).
It’s not a bad idea at first glance, but therein lies a problem. “Unfortunately, in some of those places, the odd art and the toys stay the same,” Epstein says. “That’s a mistake that some of these companies make. They create a fun, interesting, novel environment and then they don’t change it. That’s a terrible mistake.”
The key is to fortify those stimuli with a deeper meaning. Author Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg followed an array of business leaders and companies for his book Innovation as Usual and got a firsthand account of what companies were doing right and wrong. At one firm, Wedell-Wedellsborg says the main complaint was that employees weren’t engaged enough.
The solution: a celebration bell in the middle of the office. Whenever someone closed a sale or had any kind of win, they could ring the bell and give a brief announcement of the news.
“In the beginning, it felt a little forced. It was mostly the managers who did it,” he says. “Then after a month, people just started embracing it. When the company had to move into a new building, they asked, what do you want to keep from the old office? Number one on that list was the celebration bell. It was a symbol, which can be powerful. But it was linked to a behavior that makes sense for the office.”
Listen to this full episode on switching up your environment, where Epstein and Wedell-Wedellsborg also address the essential three B’s and what to do when changing your surroundings just isn’t enough: