Physical movement can make us more creative, research suggests. A recent study at Stanford suggested, for example, that walking sparked creativity, even when participants merely walked on a treadmill while looking at a white wall.
But what about other types of movement? Could working on the go – from simply commuting to work to long-haul international work and travel – give you a mental boost that could improve productivity or creative thinking?
Programmes specifically designed to combine travel and remote work have cropped up in recent years. Launched in 2014, Hacker Paradise takes developers, designers and entrepreneurs on trips to foreign destinations for a few weeks at a time. Last year Remote Year started a journey with 75 remote workers to 12 countries around the world in 12 months, where “remotes” often work from stunning (and constantly changing) contexts. Another program called coWork the World will launch in May. The year-long programme will be split into seven legs, with remote workers able to join for just some, or all, of the trip. Meanwhile, the AmTrak Residency for Writers programme sponsors professional creative writers who work while travelling on long-distance trains.
In December, I joined the millions of other Americans and Brits that travel during the holiday season, I spent a considerable amount of time on the go – including on a ship, a plane and a train.
When I boarded a 10-day holiday cruise from San Francisco to Mexico with my family, I was both anxious and excited about the prospect of being without phone or internet for a week-and-a-half. The ship offered internet at sea, but at such an exorbitant price that I opted against it as a blanket policy. Instead, I downloaded scholarly articles to review, brought recorded interviews to transcribe and promised my mother I would finally organise thousands of wedding photos.
If you’re getting on a plane at all, the good news is that you’re already more likely to increase your creativity
Without distractions like phone or email, which research suggests can reduce worker productivity, or having to worry about normal daily chores like food preparation, I pictured myself working on a deck overlooking the sea for hours at a time, a productive working machine. What actually happened was a mix of seasickness, fatigue and non-stop distractions.
The constant meals, catching up with family members, musical performances and variety shows (which I attended when I didn’t feel too queasy) kept me from getting any work done. By 8pm each night, I found myself exhausted and ready to be rocked to sleep.
Other people however, did manage to work aboard the ship.
One fellow cruiser I talked to told me that he purchased an hour at the internet cafe per day for catching up on emails. He said it was the most productive and focused hour he had each day, as his goal was to use the time as efficiently as possible. But he struggled to get himself to work at any other time on the ship.
“Who would come on a cruise ship and try to get any work done?” he asked. He had a point.
If you’re getting on a plane at all, the good news is that you’re already more likely to increase your creativity, according to research conducted by psychologist Adam Galinksy. His studies have suggested foreign experiences tend to increase creativity, as we experience other cultures and drink in new sights and sounds.
“Integration is important because it’s a key variable in what we call cognitive flexibility and cognitive complexity,” Galinsky says. “The flexibility comes in by recognising patterns.”
He takes leaving food on a plate as an example. While in some cultures, leaving food on a plate is a sign of respect indicating you’ve had enough to eat, in other cultures it signifies to the host that the food wasn’t very enjoyable. By recognising varying perspectives like this, it increases your ability to think flexibly later on and increases creativity.
‘The regular disruption certainly keeps your mind fresh’ – Sara Cousins
“The second thing that we found is that learning about other cultures and connecting them to your own culture leads people to think in a more sophisticated or complex way,” he says.
In a study conducted at the Insead business school in France, Galinsky and colleagues gave incoming students an assignment to measure their level of integrative complexity – in other words their ability to consider and combine multiple perspectives. They found people who identified with both their home and host countries – what they called “biculturals” – had higher levels of integrative complexity. This made them more innovative and made them more likely to be promoted.
That certainly seems to be the experience of some long-term travelling remote workers. “The regular disruption certainly keeps your mind fresh, and the exposure to so many different cultures and business environments has enhanced my creativity,” says Sara Cousins, who is currently travelling with Remote Year. “The general sentiment of a business meeting in Singapore, for example, contrasts greatly with that of a meeting in Istanbul.”
Another member of the current remote group, Geetika Agrawal, says travelling lets her reflect more and offers up more possibilities. But she says that in her first month, breaking away from her routine was a struggle. “And then one day, I realised how my habits had been killing my creativity,” she says. “It’s hard to develop habits when you are constantly travelling. Every day and month is different – you meet new people, see new ways of doing things, new behaviours which keeps the mind active and creative.”
Few of us will have the opportunity to join such a long-term project. But what about working on a flight?
I found I worked effectively on planes because there was an inescapable deadline – the end of the flight.
While research has suggested deadlines can lead to a lower quality of work, having unlimited time to complete a project can also lead to inefficiency; deadlines can be a powerful motivator for productivity. (The idea that we expand work to max out the amount of time we have to complete a task is known colloquially as Parkinson’s Law). It’s why nearly every fellow freelance writer I know is suddenly focused and productive when a deadline closes in.
Research has consistently shown the benefits of breaking up your workday with views in nature
In order to maximise my productivity on long hauls, I gave myself concrete tasks to finish by the time I landed and distractions returned. On a flight to Israel for example, I was able to tackle many of the tasks I couldn’t do on the ship, including reading several studies for this story and, yes, organising thousands of wedding photos.
But while I worked significantly better than on the ocean wave, I still preferred my home office.
I couldn’t say the same about working on a train, however. Several train rides through Israel not only proved to be the best for working on the go, but were even more productive than working at home. In addition to being relatively distraction-free and having an inherent deadline, there was something soothing and helpful about gazing out at the moving expanse of trees, sea and sky rushing past the window.
Science seems to back this notion up.
“Research shows that people have higher creativity in rooms that have higher ceilings than rooms that have lower ceilings. The idea is that the physical space clears up mental space in a sense,” says Galinsky. “So if you’re travelling, seeing those expansive mountains is probably directly helpful.”
And research has consistently shown the benefits of breaking up your workday with views in nature. In a set of studies at the University of Michigan, researchers found that a walk through an arboretum improved attention more than a walk through a city. Even viewing pictures of nature or glimpsing at greenery for 40 seconds from an office window can give a cognitive boost.
“The lulling movement, the rolling landscape behind the window, always changing, always new and unexpected, the woods one moment, the river or the mountains the next, give you a sense of unreality, of trance, the type you need to create. You become suspended in space and time, and it’s easier to slip into the skin of your story,” says writer Ksenia Anske, who participated in the Amtrak Residency for Writers programme. “Unlike highways that are full of cars and noise and lights, here you’re alone, or perceive you’re alone, passing by stretches of land that you wouldn’t be able to see otherwise. You can compare it to a long walk, alone in the woods. Only instead of walking you’re sitting and typing on your laptop.”
Commuting by train? That might just be your cue to create…
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