Modes of Working: Change Your Environment to Change Your Results

Thoughts on Greek productivity, and intentional preparation for knowledge workers.

[Click here to read the original version of this post on jacobmorch.com]

I’m out of the country for the first time in 19 months. During that year and a half, I’ve thought and talked a lot about remote work – why, how and what kinds of work one might do when away from the office.

Yet, I haven’t worked properly remote until now. Yes, I’ve worked from home and from the family cabin, but not abroad, far removed from my everyday circumstances.

Alas, here I am, at some Greek island with my laptop clocking away.

This got me thinking about how changing your location can facilitate a change in your mode of working. I think differently when on the move in Greece than when I’m in the office in Oslo, just like I think differently when working from my kitchen table.

This is because we homo sapiens tend to associate certain mental and emotional states with certain places. Therefore, some places are more conducive to certain kinds of activity, and certain types or work, than others.

For me, the office is ideal for productivity and getting things done. My desk is optimized for productivity, and my brain associates the office with long days of checking off tasks and making things happen.

Hopping from island to island in Greece, while excessively consuming iced coffee and eggs benedict at shabby cafés definitely creates a different mental state than that of the office. This state is far from ideal for maximum productivity and short-term output. But it is surprisingly conducive to thinking about the bigger picture, and looking into the long term future.

Does this mean I should spend the rest of my career gazing into the Mediterranean asking big questions? No. But it does mean I might consider getting away from the office on a regular basis to help facilitate other modes of thinking and approaching professional challenges.

The bottom line is this: location is a powerful parameter you can tweak in order to change your mode of work.

With that said, location is far from the only parameter you can tweak. A few other parameters I’ve experimented with include:

  • Tools: working on a laptop versus on a piece of paper, versus a big whiteboard can allow you to examine a problem or a situation in different ways.

  • Stimulants: writer David Perell talkes about working in “beer mode or coffee mode”; he uses coffee for productivity, beer for creativity. Other substances can definitely create interesting results too – see this and thousands of other articles on “microdosing” if you’re curious.

  • Movement: if you’ve ever been in a standing meeting, you may have noticed that just getting up from a chair can change the dynamic of a meeting significantly. Right after a heavy workout, you might get into a certain state of mind. Harness the effects of movement on your ability to work in various ways.

  • Working alone or together: this is perhaps self-evident. We all do both, but many of us don’t choose whether to be alone or together intentionally, based on what type of thinking is needed and what kind of work needs to get done.

  • Physical state: despite its bad reputation, being in “fight or flight”-mode can actually help you get things done, so if you have a long day of grunt work ahead, perhaps you should consider stressing yourself a little. Just make sure you come back to a relaxed, parasympathetic state before you start making any important decisions.

  • Time of day: I have my most productive and clear-headed hours in the morning, but I can have loads if creative ideas in the early evening. Other people are the opposite way around, or are wired completely differently. If you become aware of how your thinking style changes throughout the day (or week, or month, or year!), you can do the right kind of work at the right kind of hour.

  • Headspace: Sometimes I feel open minded, sometimes I don’t. Creative work should be pursued with an open mind, but grunt work can be done without being very open minded at all. Some types of “thinking” may even be best done in your sleep (!), when your consciousness is turned off entirely – Thomas Edison once said "Never go to sleep without a request to your subconscious”, because he believed the subconscious mind to be an excellent problem solver when the body is asleep and the conscious mind gets out of the way.

If you become aware of how these various parameters impact you, your state of mind, and your mode of work, you can start to tweak them intentionally. Doing so can yield incredible results.

All of this is essentially just about setting the stage for doing great work. It’s basic preparation. The importance of good preparation is much more obvious in the world of physical labour, because the risks of getting injured are so obvious – you would never go out for a long day of chainsawing without spending five minutes to put on protective gear first, for example. You as an office worker might not be at risk of chopping off your legs on any given Tuesday, but preparing for a good day, week or life of knowledge work is still important.

The bottom line is this: if you set up your outer and inner environment in an intentional way, then doing your work gets so much more effortless.

So tweak and tinker with all the parameters, see what happens, iterate and repeat until you find what works for you. It might help you do the best work of your life.

Cheerio from Greece,

-Jacob