Why is it so hard to work-out or study Hebrew once I’ve sat in my favorite chair? Why is it so easy to forget about the to-do list while waist -deep in the river? Why do we get more done at the office desk than in our home study? Why is it “easier” to pray in our usual spot than when we’re in a hotel?
Basically our brains have learned to associate certain states of mind and kinds of activity with certain places. We don’t need to command our brains to think or feel a certain way in each location; it just happens through the brain’s previous experience of what to think, feel, and do in these places.
In Setting the scene for a productive day, Elizabeth Saunders makes a good case for leveraging these normal emotional and mental responses to specific places in order to increase productivity. Although everyone’s optimal environment will be different, she lists four elements to consider in setting up a “backdrop for success.”
The right reminders
Have a different location for each different activity (e.g. answering email, reading, writing your novel, etc). “Consistent location changes will prompt you to complete the specified activity with minimal effort.” Saunders has some ideas about how to “change location” even if you are confined to one small working space.
I have a stand-up desk that I use almost exclusively for email. When I stand there now, I’m immediately “in the email zone” and can process mail maybe three times faster than I do in my “sermon prep” chair at my desk.
The right tools
Have the right tools in the right location for the specific task associated with that place so that you can transition effortlessly. If you have to pack and unpack every time you move, or if you are always having to look for things, you’re not going to move.
I used to split my sermon study time between my home office and my Seminary office. But as I kept forgetting to take all the right books or journals home with me, I eventually decided to make my Seminary office my sermon office.
The right distractions
Saunders makes the point that some people function best in monastic silence (me), while others do best with music pounding in their ears (I will never, ever understand that). She then suggests questions to help us determine what distractions to have/not have in each location.
- How do I function when I’m connected or disconnected to the Internet?
- Does having certain devices turned on affect my mental state?
- What kind of activities do I do best when I’m around people?
- How does my mind respond when I’m completely alone?
- Can background music or a movie help me focus?
- Do days at home lead to higher or lower productivity?
I now have a “Do not disturb” sign on my door, and even a blind for the window on my office door. Now, when I slide the sign across and pull down the blind, my brain is immediately “up” for 3-4 hours of solid uninterrupted time in study of the Word.
The right surroundings
Saunders says: “For your most important creative work, having an environment that you relish spending time in makes starting on hard mental work much easier.”
I recently added three comfortable and relaxing chairs to my office study, and it’s transformed the quantity and quality of student interactions and counseling times.
The right time
Saunders doesn’t mention this, but I’ve certainly found that by regularly doing certain things at certain time, my brain finds it much easier to click into gear.
For example, my brain has got into the habit of writing a blog post first thing each day. If I try to do it at any other time, it’s like thinking through treacle; but it sort of flows in the early morning.
Now, where’s that fishing rod?