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Guide to Hacking the Optimal Writing Environment

[1]A year and a half ago, in the grip of a writing deadline I feared I would miss, I discovered an environmental productivity hack I’ve used ever since.

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

Basement laundry room, in its untidy glory

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:

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.

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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?

About Jan O'Hara [3]

A former family physician and academic, Jan O'Hara [4] left the world of medicine behind to follow her dreams of becoming a writer. She writes love stories (Opposite of Frozen [5]; Cold and Hottie [6]; the forthcoming romantic-suspense, Desperate Times, Desperate Pleasures [7]) and contributed to Author in Progress, a Writer's Digest Book edited by Therese Walsh.