In the last few months I’ve experimented a lot with workplaces. I’ve visited more than 50 different libraries and study halls, plus the ocasional session from a co-working space, a café, a pool, or even under a tree in the park. Not to mention former years working full-time at offices of varying quality. I’ve worked standing up, sitting on chairs, and lying down either on grass or on the bed.
Surprisingly, I’d say there’s not much correlation between my work setting and my focus. There are only two consistent impediments in my experience: proneness to interruption and bright sunlight.
Bright sunlight requires little explanation: you evidently work under the shade, but the overly bright environment causes unsustainable strain on the eyes, and pretty soon you’ll be forced to cease work. Still, I used to enjoy the one hour of work I was able to get done at the pool, so I’d find a smaller task to tackle, and knowing that my time was limited made me hurry with the task.
Proneness to interruption needs not to come from the environment. You can work in a bar in the flurry of activity and noise, and as long as a waiter doesn’t come to check on you, you can be equally focused as in a library. Funnily enough, for me one of the most challenging places to work is home, even if I’m alone.
For example, I’m currently writing this from a private library in the center of Madrid. I’m finding the task a chore: it doesn’t feel like an interesting essay, or that I’m contributing a unique perspective on the topic. I’m not in a state of flow. I feel a vague sensation that I could use a restroom break, but since this would require me to pack my laptop, I’m putting it off. At home I’m certain I would have taken that break. I would have probably come back and seen that what I had written was not good, checked on Twitter; you know how the story goes.
The same thing happens with the most minimum excuse: feeling just a bit thirsty? Get a glass of water. Sleepy? Prepare a cup of coffee or take a nap. At this very moment I’m noticing all these things, yet they’re not within reach so I’m not abandoning the task. At home I would.
Some weeks ago I made an experiment: what if I close the door to remind myself not to take unnecessary breaks? Soon enough I was opening the door and leaving the room without even noticing. I obstructed the door with a suitcase, and yet I’d find myself pulling at the handle having forgotten that I had obstructed the door. In the same way the mind can wander towards a different topic from what you’re supposed to be thinking while at work, the body can also wander away from its workplace without you noticing.
What interrupts or distracts you is highly idiosyncratic. At this very moment, the woman in front of me is chatting on her phone. I have no idea why, but this consistently distracts me. In this library I once saw a woman snap at a guy who dragged a chair, the man responded calmly: “I’m sorry to tell you, but if this upsets you so much, studying here is not a good idea”. Awareness of losing focus is difficult, but perhaps necessary if we are to create or find the best workplace for ourselves.
Yet, lack of distractions and interruptions are not everything. Focus and flow are reinvigorating, but when coupled with beautiful settings, it has a therapeutic effect on the soul. Yesterday I found what I consider to be the best public workplace in Madrid: the library of the Prado Museum. It seems to be relatively unknown. I was alone there most of the time, and I was surprised to have missed it in my compilation of public access workspaces in Madrid.
The setting is inspiring: a former ballroom for royalty decorated with a beautiful fresco by Luca Giordano on the domed ceiling, large canvases beautiful paintings adorning the walls, modern high quality furniture, absolute silence. Art books all around. Bathrooms are sparkling clean and incredibly spacious and private.
I came out at lunch time, crossed the street to Retiro park (the former strolling grounds of the king), and just 20 meters ahead, under the oldest tree of Madrid, I had lunch. I mused: the best workplaces not only remove distractions, they inspire through beauty.