The Mechanics of Productivity or Productivity at the Mechanic’s?

How changing your surroundings can boost your focus.

I had to get my car inspected today and typically there is some sort of wait, but I never really know what to expect. I brought my iPad so I could make better use of the wait. To my amazement the time flew by and I was able to be unusually productive, especially considering the migraine I was nursing.

This got me thinking about an article I saw in the New York Times years ago about how varying one’s study environment can improve focus and retention. “What we think is happening here is that, when the outside context is varied, the information is enriched…” said Dr. Robert Bjork (no relation to the singer).

The cramped waiting area at this auto-inspection garage was not what I would call an ideal workspace, but I was able to shut out the comings and goings and “VOLVO! It’s ready.” and sit there sorting email, scheduling rehearsals and gigs, and even write a bit.

I noticed because I’m not nearly this productive at home. Why is that? Distractions abound for one. The fridge is never too far away. I can hear it purring, offering me something, or maybe nothing more than a suspended moment of staring blankly into it wondering what I’m looking for.

On the 3 days that I teach I often leave early to use the solitude at school for composing or practicing drums. Over the years this has helped me but I think I’ve become pretty good at wasting time even there despite my best intentions.

My unscientific theory is that this is due to familiarity. The more accustomed I am to my surroundings, the less productive I am. If I could somehow get a piano and drumset into the waiting area of the inspection station, that would probably be the best setup for me.

After searching a bit on the interwebs, I found this explainer video (below) about neuralplasticity which makes sense of the way we can rewire our brains. By walking into a new environment with the intention to get things done our brains react by forming new neural pathways associated with the new location. This is sometimes referred to as the “Coffee Shop Effect.” Repeat visits will strengthen the pathways.

However, it could also have something to do with time constraints. Knowing that you are going to have 30–40 minutes before your car is ready puts a little pressure to see how much you can get done in that amount of time.

It reminds me of The 80/20 Principal by Richard Koch and the idea that 20% of our effort is responsible for 80% of the results. He suggests if we could recreate the effort we make when trying to meet a deadline at the last minute we would be much more efficient.

This is probably good for certain kinds of tasks, but in my case creative endeavors seem to be pointless if I know I only have a certain amount of time. My creativity really only takes off when I’m unaware of the time.

Although, I have written at least one tune (“What Was I Thinking” for ASA Trio) at the last minute before a rehearsal. So I guess sometimes it works, but my favorite compositions happened when I wasn’t even really trying to write.

If I can apply the 80/20 principal to the appropriate tasks and vary my workspace that should make at least part of my days more efficient and free up more time for creativity… or watching YouTube. ;-)

We can all use neuroplasticity to be more productive. It could be as simple as going to a cafe with your laptop or taking a walk and finding an unexpected place to work. Even if you just rearrange your office furniture from time to time these changes can have a positive effect on our ability to focus, for those times when your car doesn’t need inspecting.

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