The trick to getting stuff done? Do stuff around other people.

Mental effort is contagious. 

The trick to getting stuff done? Do stuff around other people.
Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

I'm a freelance writer. Often when I tell people about what I do, I hear the Greek chorus: “What a luxury! How nice it must be to work from home." Except I can't. Or rather, I could, but I would be fending off a very needy cat and the desire to eat last night's takeout at 11 AM.

At present, I am writing this article at a cafe surrounded by the furious typing of other cafe patrons who I assume have similar petty distractions awaiting them in the dysfunctional solitude of their apartments. And, according to a recent study by Belgian psychologist Kobe Desender, there's a reason for my sneaking suspicion: Mental effort is contagious. So contagious that, when Desender and his team tested the human hive mind with a simple computer game that required varying levels of partner participation and difficulty, participants naturally gravitated toward matching the perceived effort of their harder-working partners — not the difficulty level of the task.

'Swarm theory' has fascinated scientists for decades: Mainly, why do humans work harder, better, faster when we are tapped into the energy of a group?

Desender and his team determined that partners were not "mimicking" each other, but the reasons why aren't clear. "Swarm theory" has fascinated scientists for decades: Mainly, why do humans work harder, better, faster when we are tapped into the energy of a group? In fact, brain scans of control groups of children show more activity in regions that recognize facial expressions, faces, and social signals versus groups of autistic children who have trouble interpreting basic human social cues. Even monkeys who are popular have bigger brains.

So is understanding group behavior really the way to understanding how to improve human efficiency and motivation? Working together could be hardwired in our DNA. We are descended from fish, after all.

***

Daphne Muller is a New York City-based writer who has written for Salon, Ms. Magazine, The Huffington Post, and reviewed books for ELLE and Publishers Weekly. Most recently, she completed a novel and screenplay. You can follow her on Instagram @daphonay and on Twitter @DaphneEMuller.

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