Getting Unstuck By Switching Environments

Sometimes I get stuck when working on something. I’ll sit at my desk, staring at the computer’s display. Nothing! It’s not that I don’t know what I need to do next. Instead, something in me resists moving forward. Perhaps I’m feeling overwhelmed, or maybe I’m distracted by some other issue I must deal with.

When I’m feeling stuck, I’ll usually pack up my laptop and move to a nearby coffee shop or public library. Switching to a different environment usually does the trick. The combination of a 10-15 minute walk and entirely different surroundings are enough to allow me to regain my focus. I treat the excursion as an appointment with myself, one that will focus on getting a particular thing done. When I get to my destination, I’m usually ready to get back to work.

While this trick invariably works when I switch to a different physical environment, I find that switching information environments often makes a difference as well. For example, perhaps I don’t leave my desk but instead switch to working on my iPad in a different app. Often, changing contexts from the laptop to a mobile device is enough of a jog to help me regain my attention.

In especially busy days, I’ll often switch several times: I’ll move to work on my iPad in a coffee shop, and then walk a bit more to work on my paper notebook at the library, then come back to my office to work on the larger display there. This helps me draw boundaries around tasks: whereas I spent the last hour focused on project A, now I’ll spend the next couple of hours on project B. The change of place creates a clean break between activities and helps introduce some variety in my day.

I’m lucky to live in a time when we have powerful portable computing devices and the flexibility to work when and where I want. I try to make the most of it; doing so contributes to my productivity.