Location, Location, Location: Does Environment Affect Your Work?


We write a lot on the History Compass Exchanges about tools, methods and issues relevant to scholars undertaking major projects. It’s something we’re all working on and struggling with, whether it be the completion of a dissertation, revisions of an article, or the drafting of a book manuscript. Jean Smith has asked, for example, whether we can write our dissertations in “15 minutes a day.” Jean has also identified the integral link between thinking and writing. That piece has struck a chord with me this week as I struggle to find a place to think, a place to work. As I’ve been settling into a new city, snuggling into my own apartment for the first time in years, and visiting home for Thanksgiving, I’ve become acutely aware of how my own work environment profoundly affects my ability to think and to write.


An ideal writing retreat at the Burn House, Scotland. (Photo: Justin Bengry)


Where should I work? I struggle to determine how much time to spend at the university and how much time to work from home. As a postdoc, I am expected to spend a significant part of my time at my university office. But, because it is in another building, isolated from the History department, I find myself gravitating toward working at home. At home, I’ve created a warm and inviting space where my references are near at hand, and plenty of tea is available. Even the lighting is more conducive to effective work – natural sunlight punctuated by a good desk lamp, as opposed to harsh fluorescent bulbs overhead. I’m old fashioned, I guess. I like the feeling of working in a quiet private library, rather than an impersonal office.

But beyond these work/home struggles, I’ve become even more aware of how important my surroundings are for effective work completion as I visit my childhood home for Thanksgiving. My own apartment is organized around a few key possessions and is relatively minimal (but for the hundreds and hundreds of books). My university office, on the other hand, is mostly defined by my office-mates’ possessions. And my parents’ home is a jumble of clutter. I find myself loathe to work at the office, and virtually incapable of anything productive in my parents’ home.

So this week has been an interesting opportunity to observe my own tendencies with a certain degree of self-awareness across these three sites. On the one hand I feel somewhat a failure for being unable to buckle down and get into my work while visiting my hometown. But I’ve also felt like a cheater in my new city, eschewing my university office for the comforts of my own little flat. I’m  grateful, however, for the awareness this comparison has offered me about my own work habits. Why is it necessary to fight these tendencies? Instead of lamenting where I cannot work, why not focus on being effective where I can work?

How does your environment affect you and your work? Have you found ways to overcome an inability to focus in new environments and spaces? Ultimately, where do you work best?

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2 Responses to “Location, Location, Location: Does Environment Affect Your Work?”

  1. Morgan Says:

    I find that I work best if I have a few distractions in the background. Libraries drive me nuts – they’re generally too quiet and sterile, and what little noise there is in libraries tends to distract me a lot. I work quite well at home, where I can adjust the liveliness and volume of music.

    I have lately found that my computer is too full of distractions. I am a web designer when I’m not busy on my dissertation, and my computer tends to have lots of browser windows open. I have recently noticed that it is really easy to get distracted by emails from clients, or when I should be thinking about my dissertation, my mind wanders to a web design project and I will think of something I should try in my code.

    To overcome this, I have actually started using two different computers. I have an old clunky laptop that works just find for reading PDFs, browsing library sites, and using Endnote and Word. I use that machine when I am working on my dissertation. When I am writing, I maximize the window so that my eye won’t be drawn to email or other distractions. My web design work all lives on another laptop. So even if I do think of something web design-related that I want to try out while I’m researching or writing, I can’t. This has really helped my productivity.

  2. perkinsy Says:

    I totally agree about the fluorescent lighting – it is a killer of inspiration. Why don’t universities who want their academics to write more and better recognise this and banish those horrible lights!

    You have inspired me and totally distracted me. My ideal writing environment at the moment is our bed. Unfortunately this cannot be left to one sentence. Your post prompted me to write a post about my writing environment on my blog. In the meantime I received requests to write two academic articles and was pursuing a good opportunity for some paid research work. But that deep seated writing urge had been triggered. I don’t know that writing about writing on beds should be my priority right now. But once the bug has bitten it can only be squashed by writing about it.

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