Its unearthing came about by experimentation. I’d been trying to write in various public locations, but if I found a fruitful environment it was only a matter of time until something would drive me away. (A shrill laugh that couldn’t be neutralized by earplugs and headphones; flirting teens who’d repeatedly bump my table; an insistent bladder and remote bathroom, with no one reliable to watch my stuff during my absence.)
These jaunts proved expensive, too. Effectively I was earning temporary office space by paying in time (for my commute) or coin (parking fees, beverages, calorie-dense food.)
I haven’t even mentioned my introversion, which never thrilled to writing in public for extended periods.
Quest for the Ultimate Home Office
It became clear that I was after replicable and inexpensive quiet, which ideally meant writing at home. Unfortunately, my house had become a busy locale, which was the reason I ventured outside of it to write in the first place. No matter how early I woke or how I much I contorted my writing schedule, it never possessed a sense of repose or peacefulness.
Most problematic of all, my office—the only location I could seem to write without falling asleep—had become associated with stalled progress and interruptions. Each time I entered it, I could feel my deadline-driven anxiety rise.
Discovering the Secret Weapon
I don’t recall the exact precipitator, but one day, in a fit of desperation, I wound up in the basement laundry room with my laptop. And suddenly, what felt impossible was being accomplished, albeit in fits and starts. I returned the next day, and the next, and through books 1 and 2, the laundry room never lost its magic. In effect, I ended up discovering the wisdom in the following:
Stop trying to be disciplined and be a good person. Instead, put your efforts into setting up a supportive environment and creating the systems that allow you to follow through with good behaviors.” ~ a paraphrase of Dr. Doug Lisle, Ph.D, during a YouTube seminar on how to make healthful dietary changes become habitual
Why You Might Consider Pursuing an Environmental Writing Hack
Unless you are one of those 5,000-8,000 good-words-in-a-day geniuses or are consistently happy with your writing output, I’d encourage you to spend time and effort on optimizing your environment.
Consider that if you’re able to write 1000 words in a writing session and write 300 days of the year, a 5% improvement—a mere 50 words a day—would mean an extra 15,000 quality words written. A fifth to third of a book without any extra effort.
Going About the Environmental Hack
Where are you most productive in your writing? Do you know? If not, in the name of experimentation and learning, you might start keeping a spreadsheet. Do it in Excel or do it the old-fashioned way on paper, but do it. Record what you were working on, and when you started, where you were, and your word count or the number of hours you were able to spend in deep work. Then over a period of weeks—not days, because days are too granular and subject to random variability, like how much sleep you got the preceding night—see if you can detect a pattern.
Once you’ve discovered a productive location, break it down into its subcomponents. This allows you to continue to tweak the setup until it’s as close to ideal as possible. More importantly, if something should happen to your original location or you have to move, you can replicate the helpful elements in a different locale.
That’s what I did this summer (see photos below.)
For instance, this is what I like about the laundry room:
- The cement walls and tile flooring provide a sense of safety.
- Located next to the washroom.
- Quiet—the room materials absorb sound. If I need white noise, I have the laundry machines, but I keep all other noise sources out of the room, including the phone.
- It is small, no bigger than a closet, really, in terms of walking space, imparting a feeling of coziness.
- It contains no visual distractions and is decorated in earthy or neutral colors. (I removed all games from my laptop and keep the internet blocker running so it has never become a place associated with external distractions.)
- Its smells are associated with order, cleanliness and control. (The latter is critical to my writing as I’m most able to be wild on the page when my life feels non-chaotic.)
- The writing surface is a scarred wooden table used in the kitchen for years, so it is associated with family and health. The ToolMaster made the credenza, doubling down on the feeling I’m being embraced by my family as I write. Though now warped, its color reminds me of university library carrels, which I associate with hard work and goal attainment.
- As you can see, nothing in the room is fancy enough to cow me. My laundry machines are over thirty years old. (We’re still on our first top-loader because the ToolMaster is handy and the commercials about Maytag repairmen turned out to be true.) Everything speaks to utility, pragmatism, and a can-do spirit. For me, this is important because formality tends to invoke fussiness and perfectionism.
When Nearly Perfect Isn’t Good Enough
All that said, there are two things I strongly dislike about the laundry room, and this became relevant when my daughter left home and freed up a bedroom. First, it lacks natural light, and as a SAD sufferer, this is less than ideal. Second, it is cold. Even wrapped in a bathrobe and blanket during the summer, I can barely stay ahead of the chill.
Here’s how I took what I love about the basement and moved it into a space with light and heat.
- Safety—The room has a door and I’m able to place my back to the wall. (An improvement over the previous setup.)
- Facilities—The washroom is located next door.
- Quiet—This space is located at the opposite end of the house from the worst noise. Its carpet dampens sound. If I need white noise, I use the ticking of my mechanical timer or a YouTube video.
- Size—though the room is quite large, I’ve replicated the cubbyhole feeling by duct-taping posterboard around the outside edges of the writing surface. At some future date I’m going to try angling the desk, causing me to sit at the apex of the corner. I suspect that will feel cozier yet.
- Visual distractions—This was initially problematic. Shortly after I thought of repurposing the room, my husband had the same brilliant idea, except he wanted to use it for storage. Nor has my daughter removed all her belongings. I don’t need much room to write, but I cannot abide looking at clutter when I do. Hence the pseudo-credenza made of posterboard, which provides a simple, non-distracting view for $6 Canadian. I’m also in the progress of discarding and tidying what I can, so my trip to the desk has become more peaceful. Future tweaks might involve sewing different drapes and painting the room a cheerier color.
- Laundry room smell—an easy fix! When I do the household delicates, I hang them to dry in the closet.
- The writing surface and emotional furniture associations—I didn’t want to spend money, so I’m using the banquet table we bought and use for large family meals. I also spent a whopping $2.50 for a vinyl tablecloth, which I cut to size and duct taped to the table. The colors are soothing, earth-toned, and the table is no longer cold to touch.
- Avoiding formality—between my irreverent coffee mug (it says love you lots) and the inexpensive-but-functional furniture, my muse is happy. In fact, you never read this here, lest I jinx myself, but if the writing continues apace, book 3 will be complete in a few months.
Now over to you, Unboxeders. When it comes to writing, what is your best environmental productivity hack to date? If you’d like to do better, what one simple difference could you accomplish in the next week to improve your writing output?
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!