It would be easier and purer to say that your surroundings don’t matter, that somehow you can take a pencil and piece of paper and write out something great, regardless of where you are. There is a loveliness to this idea, that all one needs is a certain stick-to-it-ness to get things done – after all, you know how Plato, St. Augustine, Thomas Hardy, and H.P. Lovecraft all conquered the blank piece of paper. They did it one word at a time.
But I’m afraid to say that surroundings do matter. One of the things I realized in graduate school is how much one is influenced by your peers and setting. Having a great library inspires you, just as other students working inspires one to work. It’s a subtle form of accountability where all boats rise as the water rises. Having access to people and research, getting in that mode and mood really does influence one’s work tremendously. There’s a reason, after all, that autodidacts are rare. It’s perfectly possible to produce scholarly work without a graduate education or institutional affiliation, but it’s extremely difficult, and part of the challenge is the lack of atmosphere. To not be in the classroom or talking with colleagues is to lack important influences on our work and thinking. If that special pencil or notebook or app gets you to working, then go for it – anything to goad us into writing and working.
The importance of surroundings also includes having the right tools. People often underestimate what they need in terms of technology. Just because a computer runs doesn’t mean it’s suitable for working. Using good technology and software is cheap compared to missing deadlines, losing work, or squinting a lot (people squint a lot as they hunch over old laptops with dark, dying screens). For example for scholarly work having a good reference manager (I like Bookends) is indispensable. Scribbling it all out longhand and paying a typist is simply not feasible in our current times.
But the flip side of this coin is also true, that we can ironically get distracted by our environment. You can waste a lot of time packing for a work session at the Starbucks, ordering your coffee, and picking the perfect table and seat, so that not much work is actually done. You can be so distracted by the things around you, that hard work done in researching and selecting the perfect computer, charger, headphones, bag, and so on, that you don’t actually produce much content. We can ironically enough, spend more time playing with software and productivity tools than actually making something. For some foodies, it’s more about the right kind of knife or ice cube than actually cooking. For my children’s generation, who have only ever known limitless entertainment and apps through Netflix and the Apple App Store, I fear this will be especially difficult.
For the first year of writing my dissertation, I would start with cleaning out my email and checking facebook. I hate leaving things undone, and wanted to clean out my email inbox before writing. (A nun once told a group of people that the main thing about being a Benedictine monastic is the willingness to be interrupted, as they are always having to stop things to go to prayer. I would make a terrible Benedictine.) But I realized that this was a really bad habit, as it caused a lot of wasted time and then a mild panic to actually work before lunchtime. I have learned that whatever I do first in the morning pretty much dictates the rest of the day; if I piddle around, the day is shot. So first things first, I buckled down and typed away for a few hours before checking email and responding to things, and my productivity and sanity improved greatly.
I wish there were easier answers. We’re left with some sort of Aristotelian and Buddhist middle point, which is finding the proper balance between the right tools and atmosphere and a world of unproductive messiness. The only way to evaluate one’s balance between focus and atmosphere is to compare yourself to your peers and consider your productivity – are you actually making something?