John Steinbeck may have won a Nobel prize but he still preferred to write at an unstable little desk on his fishing boat. Another giant of American letters, Maya Angelou, liked to rent out hotel rooms and write perched on the bed. Peter Benchley, the author behind the book that became “Jaws,” outdid both of them — he penned the thriller from the clanging back room of a furnace factory.
All of which might make you conclude that writers are a bunch of odd ducks. That might be true, but according to a thoughtful recent New Yorker piece from best-selling author and Georgetown professor Cal Newport, that’s the wrong lesson for less literary types to take from these writers’ unusual approach to productivity.
Newport insists that decades before our recent switch to remote work these authors discovered something many of us are going to learn in the coming months and years: working close to home beats actually working at home.
Find your own productivity bolt hole.
Calling the likes of Steinbeck and Angelou “the original work-from-home knowledge workers,” Newport argues that they intuited something many of us are just realizing now. The human brain is an association making machine, which makes maintaining professional focus incredibly difficult in a non-professional environment.
“The home is filled with the familiar, and the familiar snares our attention, destabilizing the subtle neuronal dance required to think clearly. When we pass the laundry basket outside our home office (a.k.a. our bedroom), our brain shifts toward a household-chores context, even when we would like to maintain focus on our e-mail, or an upcoming Zoom meeting, or whatever else that needs to get done,” Newport explains.
Face time-loving managers and commercial real estate CEOs might reply, ‘everyone back to the office then.’ But the office has its own set of endless distractions, and this year has made crystal clear to many workers just how much time and sanity they lose going in to the office every day.
The solution, as Steinbeck and Angelou discovered long ago, is to find a third space with limited associations and few interruptions. It need not be impressive or even quiet. But to avoid the hell of commuting it should ideally be a mere stroll from your home.
“The same motives that drove Angelou to a bare-walled hotel room and Benchley to a furnace-supply company will now suddenly apply at a large scale,” Newport declares. “Many workers won’t be returning to an office anytime soon, but having them relocate their efforts entirely to their homes for the long run might be unexpectedly misery-inducing and unproductive. We need to consider a third option for our current moment, and if we look to authors for inspiration then one such alternative emerges: work from near home.”
Bosses, he continues, should actively support and/or subsidize their employees’ efforts to find their own version of Steinbeck’s fishing boat, be that a local coffee shop or a desk rented by the hour or day.
To which the entirety of the coworking movement will reply, ‘yeah, that’s what we’ve been telling you for years.’ The idea of a ‘third space’ that’s neither the office nor the home isn’t novel, Newport acknowledges, but thanks to the pandemic it’s a productivity hack that’s time has finally come.
“If an organization plans to allow remote work, the extra cost to subsidize the ability of workers to escape household distraction will be more than recouped in both the increased quality of work produced and the improved happiness of the employees, leading to less burnout and reduced churn,” Newport chides bosses.
But even if your manager isn’t forward-thinking enough to support your efforts to find your own productivity hideaway, you don’t need his or her approval to steal the idea from some of America’s most cherished writers. A garden shed, a friend’s spare room, or your local park’s picnic area could be all you need to radically increase your work-from-home productivity.