The novelty effect: how switching to a different word processor can improve your writing

Writer Clive Thompson (a frequent contributor to Boing Boing) has an excellent regular column at Medium. One of his recent pieces is about how he switches to a different word processor when he is revising a draft. He says seeing the words in a new window, font, or interface gives him the distance he needs to see the work with fresh eyes. Clive thinks (and I agree) this is a example of the Novelty Effect:

So — why did switching to an odd new writing environment suddenly unlock me?

I think it's because of what's known as the "novelty effect": Whenever we change our technological environment, our performance temporarily improves. There's something about the just-slightly-off strangeness of our new situation that reinvigorates us.

Psychologists first noticed the novelty effect back in the 1930s, during a fascinating experiment at the Hawthorne factory of Western Electric. Federal researchers decided to change the lighting levels to see if it would improve the productivity of the workers. At first, the researchers raised the lighting levels. Productivity went up! Then they experimented with lowering the lighting levels. Again, productivity went up.

This is what's so interesting about the novelty effect: It almost doesn't matter what type of change you make to your work environment — just so long as you make change. So long as it renders your work slightly askew, you get a novelty effect. (Trivia: Because the discovery was made at the Hawthorne factory, it's also sometimes called "The Hawthorne Effect".)

This, I think, explains a big part of why switching to my old computer suddenly jolted me into a mindset for re-writing. The old version of Word — and the different laptop screen, and even the crappy old keyboard — made the file feel suddenly different.