City vs countryside: the ultimate productivity experiment

by Jobbatical August 02, 2016

To find out what kind of environment is better for productivity and creativity, I experimented on myself. For science! (And fresh berries. Mainly the berries.)

There’s an Estonian saying that goes something like, “Yes, we had a lovely summer this year, but unfortunately I was at work that day.” Inspired by this somewhat sad—and frighteningly accurate—adage, I recently picked up a mobile internet dongle, hopped on a bus, and made my way to my childhood home to work from a hammock for a week.

Estonian summer in a nutshell. Upon seeing a photograph like this, most Estonians will be hit by a powerful primal urge to roll out the barbecue and make daisy chains while singing folk songs. Image: Max_Wanted_Media/Shutterstock

Why would you do such a thing, I hear you ask! This is sheer madness, you shout incredulously! The reason behind my decision to leave the city for a little while was twofold:

  1. A change of scenery sounded like the perfect much-needed productivity booster. A huge chunk of my job requires me to be creative with words. If that’s not happening, it tends to become a mild inconvenience.
  2. Estonian summers are brief but magical, so every minute of fresh air and sunshine should be treasured.

Granted, experiments like this are neither a possibility nor a necessity for everyone. The three things you absolutely need before starting are:

  1. A flexible job that requires little more than a tolerable internet connection, a laptop, and at least some brain capacity.
  2. A place somewhere in the countryside that fills you with serenity and bliss. If available, parents’ houses are an ideal low-cost option. Note that meddling parents who insist on knowing “what you’re doing with your life” may skew results.
  3. A mild to moderate productivity and/or identity crisis.

Equipped with all of the above, I set out to compare the two work environments. My aim: to draw deeply scientific conclusions* and put an end to any and all debate on the subject. With these lofty goals in mind, let’s get this showdown on the road.

The big city

Specifically: Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Population: 440,950

Even more specifically: the Jobbatical office. Population: maybe 10 on a good day

You know it’s a good work environment when the CEO’s got her feet up on the swing and her socks match the cushions. My aesthetic needs: officially 100% met.

Major productivity killers:

  • Witty conversation: It turns out that one of the major downsides of having really cool colleagues is actually wanting to talk to them all the time. Ugh.
  • Snacks are readily available and somehow there’s always cake. This, combined with a lack of physical exercise, tends to make me sluggish and therefore less likely to do my best work.
  • There’s just something vaguely disheartening about spending too much time in the office.

Most productive working hours:

Approximately 10.00–14.00 on most days. Predictably (since it involves actual numbers), this was the most difficult thing for me to pin down.

Major productivity boosters:

As far as offices go, ours is pretty cool. When a wave of productivity hits, it hits hard. My main tricks for making that happen are:

  • Looking very busy and important so no-one stops to talk to me. Here, the fake it ‘til you make it principle applies: If I try hard to look focused, I will eventually become focused.
  • Retreating from the outside world by listening to ear-splittingly loud music while trying not to worry about whether or not everyone can hear the embarrassing pop music leaking through my headphones.

Wasp stings:

None (clear winner here)!

Overall impression:

While I love our office, it’s not 100% conducive to productivity at all times. Having other people around can be as distracting as it can be motivating. Hence the need to change it up a bit.

Would I do this for a year?

I’ve done it for longer than that, with bouts of remote work scattered around here and there. Would I want to do all office all day every day? Probably not.

The idyllic countryside

Specifically: the village of Kotinuka in northeastern Estonia. Population: 40

Jobbatical’s Kotinuka branch manager: the sweetest, fluffiest, dumbest distraction of them all. Look at that face. Look at it!

Major productivity killers:

  • The world was suddenly filled with storks, toads, newts (I like wildlife, OK? Have you ever tried newtspotting? It’s amazing!), and interestingly shaped clouds (I also really like clouds).
  • On day two a bit of a spanner flew into the works: My family arrived, demanding attention. Furthermore, rain confined me to the house at one point, forcing me to—gasp—speak to them!

“Oh look, a stork! Oh look, a toad! Oh look, a dragonfly! Is that a buzzard? What kind of cloud is that? Wait, is that sunburn?” Such was the full extent of my inner monologue for a week.

Most productive working hours:

Approximately 13.00–18.00. Still hard to tell. Late afternoons were clearly more productive than mornings—quite the opposite of what I observed in the office.

Major productivity boosters:

Day one was pure magic. Everything fell into place. Angels sang, harps played, and cosmic particles of pure inspiration floated straight into my brain. On the whole, productivity boosters largely overlapped with the distractions. Seeing a stork fly by might distract me for a few minutes and make me reach for my phone to take pictures (resulting in a whole lot of blurriness; see above), but it‘s also exciting (I meant it when I said I like wildlife), which makes me more likely to actively want to get stuff done. Other factors contributing to this abundance of motivation:

  • I felt better physically: stacking firewood, walking the dog, and eating fresh produce was a winning formula.
  • Working while sunbathing? Yes please! (Please sunbathe responsibly and always wear sunscreen!)
  • I suspect hammocks might have actual magical properties. This requires further investigation.
  • Being relatively isolated from the rest of the world was extremely refreshing.

Behold the noble blackcurrant! I’m not a believer in the concept of superfoods, but I’m pretty sure this berry has literally made me immortal. (Your mileage may vary. Consult a scientist before attempting immortality.)

Wasp stings:

2, but from the same wasp. I’m not even mad. That’s amazing.

Overall impression:

Interestingly enough, I found myself somehow more distracted and more productive at the same time. Overall happiness levels flew right off the charts from day one. I found it easier to work and felt more motivated in pursuing my hobbies (mostly experimenting with writing fiction).

Would I do this for a year?

All things considered, this sort of arrangement is probably more of a summer thing. Winters can get gloomy here, and the hammock isn’t an option—what’s the point then, really? The isolation would also become an issue down the line.

Sweeping non-scientific conclusions

  1. A job that allows you to work remotely every now and again is one of the best things that can happen to you.
  2. Working in an office in the city has its ups and downs, depending on what you find motivating.
  3. Working remotely also has its ups and downs, depending on what you find motivating.
  4. With some thought and planning, the two approaches can be combined to form one balanced super-approach that maximizes ups, while downs are reduced to an acceptable minimum. According to my calculations, the ideal is at least one week spent working remotely for every two or three months spent in the office. Once again, your mileage may vary.
  5. Wasp stings are more likely to occur in the countryside.

One of the clear limitations of this experiment was my failure to pin down my most productive hours with any degree of certainty or startling mathematical accuracy. The conclusion drawn from this: I should start using a time tracker of some sort. Join me again next month for that experiment!

Here it is at last—the famous hammock. Just looking at it makes me want to write award-winning fiction!

*Literally no science whatsoever was done throughout this entire experiment. And despite my best efforts, no wasps were harmed.

If, like me, you’re lucky enough to have a flexible and inspiring job, please take a moment now to appreciate it. If you don’t have one yet, perhaps you’d like to consider finding one on Jobbatical!

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