Unfamiliar Workspace = Greater Productivity?

Can working in an unfamiliar environment, away from all of your everyday tools and resources, actually help you work more efficiently? I’m starting to think it does.

Instead of working late or using the Behavior VPN, lately I’ve been packing all of my working files onto a company “floater” laptop and bringing the whole computer home with me.

The laptop isn’t customized in any way for me. It doesn’t have any of my bookmarks, very few network drive shortcuts, I can’t check email except using webmail. There are no podcasts, no iTunes, no instant messaging. No ergonomic keyboard or dual monitors, none of my familiar interface widgets. When I use this laptop, it’s the workstation equivalent of, say, staying at a hotel or in a guestroom at a friend’s house: most of the essentials are in place, they’re just in unfamiliar places, or configured differently than I would have configured them.

But here’s the weird part: I’ve noticed is that I am noticably more productive when working on this bare-bones, foreign, unfamiliar machine. I am able to work on one project, even one document, for hours and hours without distraction. I get things done a lot faster. How can this be?

My theory is that the familiar environment of my normal workstation has become so clogged with distractions, both work-related and not, that it “enables” me to multi-task a little too much. By removing all of the distractions of an overly comfortable workspace, taking away all of the shortcuts, alerts, feeds, and messages, it’s easier to stick to the task at hand.

I think this is part of the reason why I like to completely wipe my hard drive and reinstall everything every six months or so.

Another, possibly disturbing, angle on this is that more and more of one’s computer “working environment” is becoming distributed, non-location specific. We are now able to have our distraction-laden work environments follow us wherever we go, via personalized news and information portal sites like MyYahoo, shared personal link repositories like del.icio.us, robust webmail apps like Gmail (now with chat!), web-based collaborative workspaces like, well, anything by 37signals, the list goes on and on.

So my big revelation has arrived a little too late. It won’t be long before I instinctively activate all of my web-based tools and resources within minutes of sitting down at any computer, transforming a healthy sanctuary into a multi-tasked world of distraction.

There’s only one ultimate answer, I guess: Unplug the Cat-5, disable the 802.11, and work off the grid.


5 responses to “Unfamiliar Workspace = Greater Productivity?”

  1. Pau Santesmasses Avatar
    Pau Santesmasses

    Just a quick comment to… huh… look at the markup so i can write styles for you!
    But, by the way, I think you make a really good point. Distraction free environment is good. I don’t know about wiping off my hardrive every 6 months though!

  2. Well, I don’t delete all my personal files. I back them up elsewhere, then copy them onto the “new” machine.

  3. I agree here. Lately, I’ve been closing up apps and deleting oft-visited bookmarks precisely for the very fact that I tend to find them a little too easily.

    I try these days to just have the essentials apps open to do the task at hand rather than have a browser, photoshop, homesite, illustrator, etc all open. One of the more surprising things is the very fact that closing Firefox or Thunderbird is the most successful — I suppose browsing the web and checking email are my biggest two distractions.

  4. Naz: Yeah, I keep thinking back to when I was a fresh young project manager in 1996, using 640×480 Windows 3.1, and trying to run things like Word and MS Project, always full-screen. And, looking back, I think I was pretty productive, quite possibly because it never occurred to me that I might want to run more then 2 or three apps at once.

    I’m also not sure I recall being any more annoyed at my computer’s slow performance in 1996 than I am today, ten years in time and a trillion megahertz in speed later.

  5. I hear ya, especially on the ease of multi-tasking. When RSS and feed readers started to hit big I thought, “Finally, I won’t need to open up 40 different pages via bookmarks every day!” Well, now I use a feed reader that’s packed with 400 feeds and I spend more time in there than ever before. My multi-tasking has definitely backfired.

    Also, when I was forced to work from home during the transit strike I found myself more productive from my home machine than at work. Even though it had plenty of my familiar tools, there were enough differences to throw off my regular, distracting routines.