Why you should be hacking your work environment

I still remember my first fountain pen. It was a beautiful thing, green and blue, nice to touch, that would caress the paper when you wrote. To this day, holding a fountain pen in my hand puts me in writing mood, in thinking mood. It opens my mind, as Paul Erdös would say.

I became conscious of this not long ago when, as I was reading Daniel Kahneman’s wonderful Thinking, Fast and Slow1, I understood for the first time how prevalent this effect is, and how important it probably is in my life.

It is called priming, it happens in ways we do not imagine, and most of the time we are not aware of it. Here’s an example, in Kahneman’s words:

In an experiment that became an instant classic, the psychologist John Bargh and his collaborators asked students at New York University—most aged eighteen to twenty-two—to assemble four-word sentences from a set of five words (for example, “finds he it yellow instantly”). For one group of students, half the scrambled sentences contained words associated with the elderly, such as Florida, forgetful, bald, gray, or wrinkle. When they had completed that task, the young participants were sent out to do another experiment in an office down the hall. That short walk was what the experiment was about. The researchers unobtrusively measured the time it took people to get from one end of the corridor to the other. As Bargh had predicted, the young people who had fashioned a sentence from words with an elderly theme walked down the hallway significantly more slowly than the others.

It works in two directions: what you perceive influences how you act, and what you do changes how you see and feel. Both happen in ways that are not obvious, unconscious, repeatable and —once you’ve figured them out2— predictable.

And, as I am the kind of animal to which the above happens3, I have a strong interest in learning how my environment might be shaping my actions. My hypothesis is that my working environment impacts in the quality of my work and my well-being in non-obvious ways, and that I can improve both by changing my surroundings.

What do you want to achieve?

This is a surprisingly non-obvious question. According to the research cited by Kahneman, what you’ll be good at is very much influenced by the level of cognitive ease you experience. By default you work with the cheap intuitive system, most of which you are not aware of. But as cognition becomes difficult —as cognitive ease is lost— you grudgingly enlist your expensive analytic faculties and start to actually think.

When the environment is easy on your cognition you are more relaxed and creative; when it is harsh you are more analytical and precise. You learn measurably better from reading through a poorly written paper than from coasting along a nicely crafted one.

Ján comments (see below) that he tends to have his best ideas in dull environments. Maybe it’s easier to give yourself permission to tune out in boring surroundings; maybe being in a warm and familiar place increases the cognitive surplus and makes it easier to jump into the analytical mind, where you are precise but not creative.

So, and this is completely speculative, maybe the answer is to tune your environment to be dull when you need creativity, and easy and homely when you need focus and analysis.

Exploring how to measure it

You cannot test unless you measure: is it lines of code, articles per month, books read, inventions disclosed? Maybe you should go for the final results, like pages viewed in your website. And different environments will work for different kinds of job, so maybe you need to measure your ability to write in one setup, and the quality of your code in another.

Or measure the inverse of what you want, like time spent on your RSS reader. This has the advantage of working regardless of the actual goal.

Ideas on how to test it

I am surrounded, as I write this, by a reproduction of an old map, several silver halide copies of my photos4, many books, a reproduction of Leonardo’s The Virgin and child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist, and tons of assorted junk. A good start would be to move everything to the dining room, and add it back in random sets that stay here for a while.

But it’s not very practical, and the kids might complain. The way to test the environment will probably involve working in different places: become a regular of the library and a bar, for example.

And then there’s the screen, which is after all where your focus is most of the working time. Does the desktop background affect how you work? The hypothesis I am going to test first, suggested by another of the experiments described in Kahneman’s book, is that a pair of serious eyes might reduce procrastination.

There are a couple of problems, however. First is that the very fact of knowing that your productivity is measured will change it, as I think Taylor first found out. The second is that being conscious of the experiment, and of which hypothesis is being tested at any given point, will also change the outcome. So I need a way for my screen to show me the eyes without me noticing consciously: maybe, and here I am again speculating wildly, a very low contrast image. Or maybe the eyes are low contrast and in the blue channel of an otherwise anodyne picture.

Please do let me know if you have any idea on how to test this. And I’ll think more about it, with my fountain pen handy.



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I cannot resist mentioning Gazzaniga’s more dramatic experiment, as recounted for example in his great Who’s in Charge?. They worked with patients whose corpus callosum (the nerves that join the two hemispheres of the brain) had been severed. Turns out you can communicate with the two hemispheres independently, so you can ask the right hemisphere to do something like get up and pick a coke. If you then ask the person —his discursive left hemisphere— why is he doing it, you’ll always get a ready-made plausible answer, like “I was so thirsty!”.


It doesn’t take much. There’s another effect they call mere exposure: repeated exposure builds familiarity, which brings cognitive ease, which we perceive as liking. We are measurably more likely to enjoy things to which we’ve been repeatedly exposed, for no good reason other than they are familiar. And it turns out that if you expose chicks by to a given pitch before they hatch they’ll seem to enjoy it afterward.


Yes, I still shoot b&w, develop and enlarge; or, rather, shoot b&w, store, and fret about not having developed and enlarged.

Juan Reyero Barcelona, 2011-11-30


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