How travel can make
you smarter in
the workplace

Want to work smarter? Perhaps you want to become a better problem solver in the workplace, or improve your chances of promotion? Then you’ll need to take more holiday. Yes, you heard us correctly: more holiday.

We all know that travel broadens the mind, but it also makes us think differently, improves creativity and productivity, promotes intelligence and open-mindedness and removes prejudices. And that could be just the ticket to your next promotion.

My job is to write. Every day I write articles on various aspects of travel. Some days, the words flow from my fingertips, seeming to bypass my brain altogether. Other days, I draw a blank. On the uninspired days, I find the best thing to do is something else. Don’t write that article. Write a different one; take an early lunch; go for a walk. And when I get back to writing, the words flow easily once more.

So, what’s happening here? Is my mind becoming more creative when I leave my normal behind, albeit briefly? Perhaps my brain is no longer restricted by the four walls of my office, instead taking inspiration from different stimuli, giving me a different perspective, generating new ideas.

To see this hypothesis in action, let’s take a look at a recent experiment by psychologist Lile Jia from Indiana University. Jia asked two groups of students to list as many different modes of transport as they could think of. One group was told that the experiment was created in Greece, while the other was told it was created right there in Indiana. When the results were analysed, Jia found that those who were told it was a Greek task thought of a significantly greater number of transport methods than those who thought the experiment was home-grown.

Furthermore, the Greece group thought of more imaginative answers (spaceships, Segways and the like) than the others.

But what does this mean? Thinking of the problem as coming from afar, as the Greek group would have done, freed the minds of the participants. They were no longer constrained to Indiana’s transport system, but could truly think outside the box. And this is what happens when we travel. The constraints of our own little worlds break down, opening our minds to possibility and creativity.

This is all very well, but if I travel far away in order to find a better way to do my work, surely I am defeating the object of taking a break from work by going travelling? But this is where travel works its magic. In being away from work, and not thinking about it, not being restricted by the same thoughts and processes I do every day, I might just get better at it.

Let’s look at another study, this time conducted by Insead, a business school in France, together with the Kellogg School of Management in Chicago. In an experiment known as the Duncker candle problem, students were given a box of drawing pins, some matches and a candle. The task was to attach the candle to a corkboard mounted on the wall and let the candle burn without dripping wax on the floor.

The answer isn’t obvious; drawing pins will just crack the candle if they are used to pin it, while melting the wax and sticking the candle to the board doesn’t hold it for long. The answer instead lies in the box, which can be used as a candleholder and then pinned to the board. Not many come up with this solution, but the experiment showed that students who had lived abroad were 20% more likely to solve the problem than those who hadn’t. Not only this, but the longer the student had spent living abroad, the more likely they were to think of the solution.

Solving this particular problem involves thinking outside the everyday function for the box and inventing a new use for it. The theory is, that this open-minded way of thinking is nurtured when travelling.

Experiencing different cultures and new ways of doing things while abroad encourages your mind to think laterally, creating new pathways in your brain that were not there before. You wake up to possibility and new interpretations of the world around you. This is known as “cognitive flexibility. Once your cognitive flexibility improves, you can come up with more creative solutions to everyday problems.

Someone who knows all about this is Professor Adam Galinsky of Columbia Business School. Galinsky took a sample of creative directors from 270 of the world’s top fashion houses and found that those brands whose director had lived abroad produced consistently more creative fashion lines than those whose directors had not.

While some of this result can be attributed to the inspiration gleaned from what the directors may have seen on their travels, Galinsky thinks there’s more to it than that. “Foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought, the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms,” he says. “The more you interact with new people and cultures, the more your mind experiences the creative benefits of that interaction.”

Perhaps Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr put it best when he said: “The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.”

So, if like me, you experience writers block one day, book a trip, travel, immerse yourself in a new culture, detach from your everyday, and see the world from a whole new perspective.