Make Sure Your Environment is Working For You
By Charlie Gilkey
When I was in graduate school and found myself unable to write, I’d go to my secret writing place: Love Library at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Love Library has some half-level floors that are rarely used, but these floors still have desks that look out toward the capitol. In the near stillness amid the smell of old books and journal articles, I’d open up Mellel (at the time, the best writing app for academics), turn on some background classical music, and write for hours. It was reliable enough that a week before the deadline, I could review my research notes, do last-minute reading (or all the reading) up until three days before the deadline, write for a day, edit it the next day, and send it on the deadline.
But if I tried the same thing without going to the library, my plans for meeting the deadline would all fall apart on me. The pressure of the deadlines meant that I could force myself through a long night of writing at home, but it was torturous and never produced my best work because I’m a lark (more on that later). While it feels odd to admit that all of the writing I did in the seven-odd years I spent in graduate school was probably done in less than sixty days of focused writing, it was the same for many of my peers.
A dozen years and a few hundred thousand words later, I know that it would have been much smarter to just go to the library twice per week — probably on Monday and Tuesday — ready to write. That’s wisdom that young adults and creative amateurs can’t hear, though.
But you’re much smarter and ready than I was at the time, and you probably know how important is for your focus, momentum, and creativity. You’ve also experienced what it’s like for your best-laid plan for the day to go sideways because your chatty coworkers distracted you all day or the construction crew started next door on the day you had allotted for quiet writing. The question is whether you’re actively creating the space for you to do your best work — like Tony Stark.
While I could wax on about how the first Iron Man movie was a watershed moment for me, what’s relevant for our present conversation is the way Tony Stark’s lab was set up for him to be able to build his high-tech power suits. He’d touch a virtual screen, swipe to the left, tell the computer to add different components and materials, and then the robots would spin and whir in the background to build the myriad ideas he just put in the queue. Tony Stark’s lab was custom-made to capture his ideas with as little friction as possible and then start making whatever he wanted with as little work for him as possible.
That is the ideal, and though you may not be one of the smartest and richest people in a fictional universe, knowing what your lab — or workshop, sanctuary, kitchen, or whatever metaphor most resonates with you — would look like is a powerful way to work backward to an environment that works for you. If your lab would have big windows to let the sunlight and seaside vista come in, you know that your desk in the corner of the basement is temporary and that it may be time to get some beach posters and better lighting.
The following are some environmental factors to consider when thinking about whether your environment works for you:
Sound. Consider coworkers talking in the background, the sounds of a coffee shop, the buzz of children playing in the distance, the hum of the ceiling fan, the babbling of a brook, or the hustle-bustle of a busy city street. Each sound affects us differently. Figure out what background noise best serves your best work.
Smell. It’s obvious that disgusting smells can make it hard to focus, but there may be smells that really get you in the zone. Of all the senses, our sense of smell brings us closest to our memory center, so smells can have a powerful effect on getting us in the zone.
Sunlight. Studies show that sunlight affects our moods, and there’s a right amount for each of us. Night owls often prefer working in darker rooms.
Clothing. Yes, what you wear is a part of your environment and is worth considering. Pants that don’t fit in all the wrong places can be distracting, as can itchy socks. It’s also true that you may not take yourself or your work seriously if you’re working in your pajamas and a shirt you’ve been wearing for the last three days. It may also be that those pajamas and shirt make up your lucky outfit. If it works for you, I’m not judging.
Clutter/Organization. It’s not necessarily true for everyone that a clean desk equates to a clean mind, as I’ve witnessed people who can’t focus with a clean desk or in a Zen/spartan environment. Your tolerance for clutter or tidiness may also depend on the space in question.
Amount of space. Some people like the coziness of small rooms with lots of furniture, shelves, and so on, whereas others prefer more spacious rooms with less furniture. Like clutter, it could also be that only parts of your work area need to be spacious. Even further, it could be that certain kinds of stuff in your space create different feelings for you.
Music. While studies show that listening to classical music increases focus and creativity,3 you may not be able to concentrate with it. It may be that certain kinds of music work for you or really don’t work for you, or the level of music makes a lot of difference. For instance, I typically can’t do focus blocks while listening to music with spoken words, but the “This Is Coheed and Cambria” playlist on Spotify has been in the background for much of the drafting of this book; Jack Johnson radio on Spotify powers my admin blocks. Coheed and Cambria is an uncharacteristic choice, but it just works. Your best-work music may be similarly variable and unusual.
The recurring theme is that what works or doesn’t work in your environment is unique to your preferences. Approach this as if you’re Tony Stark. While you’re considering what in your environment might not be working for you, you can also consider what it would look like for your environment to be optimal for you.
Making your environment work for you may come down to moving to a different location rather than changing what’s in your location.
You may find that going to a coffee shop, library, or the unused conference room for your focus blocks is the best way to do your best work, but why you do so is probably because of one of the factors I mentioned. This may be especially true if you work in an open-plan office. Luckily we’re trending away from open-plan offices in favor of the hub-and-spoke model based on evidence that the open-plan office environment isn’t conducive for focused, deep work.
Depending on how poorly or well your environment is working for you, making it work for you could be its own project, which also means you have to watch out for it being a convenient excuse to avoid doing your best work.
It’s a matter of taking the steps, large and small, to make your environment ever closer to Tony Stark’s lab. And yes, sometimes it’s as simple as going to the coffee shop or hiding away in unused levels of a library.
Excerpted from START FINISHING: How to Go from Idea to Done, by Charlie Gilkey. Sounds True, September 2019. Reprinted with permission.
Charlie Gilkey is an internationally known thought leader and founder of Productive Flourishing, a company that helps professional creatives, leaders, and changemakers take meaningful action on work that matters. An Army veteran, Charlie’s forthcoming book is Start Finishing. He’s been featured in Inc., Time, Forbes, the Guardian, Lifehacker, and more.