Location, Location, Location: Does Environment Affect Your Work?

October, 2010 · By Justin Bengry

We write a lot on the History Compass Exchanges about tools, methods and issues relevant to scholars undertaking major projects. It’s something we’re all working on and struggling with, whether it be the completion of a dissertation, revisions of an article, or the drafting of a book manuscript. Jean Smith has asked, for example, whether we can write our dissertations in “15 minutes a day.” Jean has also identified the integral link between thinking and writing. That piece has struck a chord with me this week as I struggle to find a place to think, a place to work. As I’ve been settling into a new city, snuggling into my own apartment for the first time in years, and visiting home for Thanksgiving, I’ve become acutely aware of how my own work environment profoundly affects my ability to think and to write.

Where should I work? I struggle to determine how much time to spend at the university and how much time to work from home. As a postdoc, I am expected to spend a significant part of my time at my university office. But, because it is in another building, isolated from the History department, I find myself gravitating toward working at home. At home, I’ve created a warm and inviting space where my references are near at hand, and plenty of tea is available. Even the lighting is more conducive to effective work – natural sunlight punctuated by a good desk lamp, as opposed to harsh fluorescent bulbs overhead. I’m old fashioned, I guess. I like the feeling of working in a quiet private library, rather than an impersonal office.

But beyond these work/home struggles, I’ve become even more aware of how important my surroundings are for effective work completion as I visit my childhood home for Thanksgiving. My own apartment is organized around a few key possessions and is relatively minimal (but for the hundreds and hundreds of books). My university office, on the other hand, is mostly defined by my office-mates’ possessions. And my parents’ home is a jumble of clutter. I find myself loathe to work at the office, and virtually incapable of anything productive in my parents’ home.

So this week has been an interesting opportunity to observe my own tendencies with a certain degree of self-awareness across these three sites. On the one hand I feel somewhat a failure for being unable to buckle down and get into my work while visiting my hometown. But I’ve also felt like a cheater in my new city, eschewing my university office for the comforts of my own little flat. I’m  grateful, however, for the awareness this comparison has offered me about my own work habits. Why is it necessary to fight these tendencies? Instead of lamenting where I cannot work, why not focus on being effective where I can work?

How does your environment affect you and your work? Have you found ways to overcome an inability to focus in new environments and spaces? Ultimately, where do you work best?

This post was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
12 October 2010.



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