Ernest Hemingway never ate at his desk.
He also never read the newspaper, talked on the phone, or opened his mail at his desk. He wrote at his desk. That’s all.
Mason Currey gives us a peek inside Hemingway's writing process in Daily Rituals: How Artists Work:
Hemingway wrote standing up, facing a chest-high bookshelf with a typewriter on top, and on top of that a wooden reading board. First drafts were composed in pencil on onionskin typewriter paper laid slantwise across the board; when the work was going well, Hemingway would remove the board and shift to the typewriter.
Hemingway created his own unique environment. When it was time to write, he stood in the same place and used the same tools the exact same way, every single day.
Today, in a world of work that’s mostly digital, we hardly notice our physical environments. But this is a mistake. Our habitual, unconscious mind is very much aware of our surroundings, using cues like time, location, and our senses to trigger automatic thoughts and behaviors. Some of those can work in our favor to make us more productive. Others, not so much. Here are three changes you can make to your physical environment that can boost your productivity.
For Hemingway, his desk was the place that forced him to focus strictly on writing. When he was there, he was working. When he wasn't, he wasn't. It was a simple trick that rests on encoding a physical environment with a certain type of mental process. We’re all in control of where, how, and what to turn into the triggers that generate the mind-set we need to do our best work.
Physical place is one of the most obvious and effective of them. Your mind associates the different places you work with the activities you do there. So if you want to improve your focus and attention when doing a certain kind of work, simply be intentional about where you do it.
Our devices let us do almost anything from anywhere, but when you try to do more than one thing in a single place, it's harder to focus on the task at hand. If you work in bed, check your email in bed, and watch movies in bed, your brain associates bed with work, play, and sleep all at once. That can make it harder to do the primary thing that your bed is made for: sleep.
In other words, this sort of encoding is happening anyway throughout all places and spaces in your world, even if you aren't intentional about it. Your desk at work, your desk at home, your couch, your dinner table, your car—each one triggers certain attitudes and thoughts and reinforces different modes of work.
So it makes sense to make the most of all that by setting boundaries. For example, if you're trying to brainstorm creative ideas, instead of doing it at the desk where you mostly answer emails and manage projects, grab your computer or a pen and paper and do it somewhere else. Find a comfortable place that has more energy, surrounded by things that can spark creativity, like a park bench that’s close by or an empty office with a view.
Try different places in and around your office and home. When you find a place where brainstorming new ideas comes easy, use it again and again to do that kind of work—and only that kind of work.
Audio cues are perhaps the easiest things to insert into task-specific workflows. We don't often realize it, but how our physical surroundings sound also impacts our productivity.
For instance, when you’re trying to get through all the emails in your inbox, clear away all the clutter around your monitor, put on headphones, and turn on a specific song or playlist. Do that every time you dig into that task. Each time you do this, you’re telling your brain, "It's time to crush our inbox—let’s do this."
Make different playlists for different tasks. When you find yourself struggling to get something done, get out your headphones and let the music help push you along.
Author Michael Lewis uses a looping playlist to get into a deep flow to write. Here's what he tells Meredith Maran about his process in her book Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do:
I used to get the total immersion feeling by writing at midnight. The day is not structured to write, and so I unplug the phones. I pull down the blinds. I put my headset on and play the same soundtrack of 20 songs over and over and I don’t hear them. It shuts everything else out.
Ryan Holiday has written extensively about how listening to certain songs over and over (even songs he doesn’t particularly like) helps him get in the right mental state to increase his creative output.
You may not have to subject yourself to annoying music in order to be productive, but a little experimenting can help you figure out what works for you. Pandora and Spotify have hundreds of work-friendly playlists to choose from. (Personally, I like this Spotify playlist for writing and this one for getting through my inbox.)
You may not think of tech hardware and digital interfaces as part of your physical surroundings, but they are. As a result, your devices can also be used as triggers for focus. If you never open Netflix, Hulu, or any other video platforms on your work laptop, you’re much less likely to think about watching the latest episode of your favorite show while you're using that device. By designating and restricting certain devices to certain types of use, you can make each session more focused and productive.
Try using an old laptop just for writing. Wipe it of all other files and apps except your favorite writing tools. Turn off the Wi-Fi and leave it off.
Then you can use your iPad only for entertainment media. Watch your favorite shows or finally take that online course you bought. Browse the latest TED Talks or read your backlog of Kindle e-books. If you’re on your iPad, you’re watching, reading, or learning, not checking your email or adding tasks to your to-do list.
There's an endless number of ways you can use your external environment to create positive, productive work habits. Start small and see what works. The benefit is that the boundaries you set are entirely up to you, just as long as you stick with them.
Julia Roy is an entrepreneur and futurist exploring the intersection of productivity, science, and technology. Through her consultancy WorkHacks, she helps companies implement new technologies and systems that improve communication, collaboration, and productivity. Follow her on Twitter at @JuliaRoy.