Locations for Deep Work

Eva Lantsoght
4 jan ’18

We are the creatures of habit. Most days, we arrive around the same time at our office. Then, we perhaps get our coffee, check our email and see what we want to work on for the day. Or we check the news, start to read the comments, and before we realize, half an hour has gone. Or we start to reply emails, only to get lost in the rabbit hole of starting things without finishing them, or in email ping-pong.

If at the end of the day, when you leave your office, you have the feeling you have accomplished very little, you can try to switch up your routine. We've talked before about using pomodorosplanninglists, and other tools to use your time wisely. Today, we will focus on how we associate a certain location to certain behavior.

Just like we associate our dining table with meals, we associate our office and our desk with our office-behavior. If you are struggling with bad habits and procrastination, try switching locations to induce deep work. Of course, if you have office hours or need to be available for your supervisors at certain times, don't simply disappear. You can change locations outside of the hours that you have meetings in your office, or communicate to others when you will be available.

Here are some strategies that you can use to break bad habits and focus on deep work:

1. Get a designated focus spot

If your office is large enough, or if you work from home, you can identify a "focus spot". A focus spot is a designated area for focused work. If you want to concentrate deeply on some work, take that work (and only that work) to your focus spot. You can for example take a notebook and print of a journal article. If you prefer a digital workflow, and can stay clear from the pull of the internet, then open the files you are going to use on your laptop. Set an intention to work for a certain amount of time, and stay during that time on task and in your focus spot.

2. Walk around

If sitting and reading makes you nod off, try standing or pacing around. If you are working on a computer, walking around is not very practical. If you are reading printed files on the other hand, walking around is possible. When walking around is not possible, try a standing desk to keep your body more alert. If you need to flesh out an important problem, take a notebook and go for a walk. Give your brain the space to process thoughts while you walk around. Leave your smartphone behind or on airplane mode to make sure you stay on task.

3. Go into nature or somewhere quiet

To refresh your brain and get a new perspective on things, go outside. Find a place in a park to read, a picnic table where you work for a while on your laptop, or a quiet nook on campus to hide away without disturbances. Take only what you need - either printed documents and a notebook, or your laptop (just make sure you only open the files you need and/or find a place without wifi so you avoid getting stuck into the internet).

4. Work from the library or coffee shop

If you want to switch locations to break bad habits, the most obvious choice would be to go to the library or a coffee shop. The quiet and studious atmosphere of a library can stimulate deep work for some, whereas the background noise in a coffee shop and the presence of other students will encourage others. You can make it a study date with friends or join a "shut up and write" group if you want accountability partners.

5. Associate activity with place

To make sure you stay on task, you can have a designated space per task. For those of us who work in the laboratory, the link between activity and place is already there: experiments are done in the laboratory. Similarly, you can decide to do all your reading in the library, all your writing on your focus spot, and your proofreading while walking around. Lighter work, such as administration, planning, and emails can be designated to a coffee shop. In between, you may be taking a walk in a park and use that time to clear your mind or think through a difficult research problem.

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