Tip of the trade: The role writing environment plays in productivity

Q: What roles do the writing work space and environment play in productivity?

writingA: Noelle Sterne, author, editor and writing consultant:

“As an academic and mainstream writer and editor, I firmly believe that one’s writing work space and work environment tremendously influence productivity. To discover your best writing environment requires self-analysis and candid (if uncomfortable) answers to several important questions:

1) What is your optimal time for a work session? An hour, three, fifteen minutes? My optimal session is about an hour and a half. But sometimes my brain bubbles like a hot spring, and I can work for three hours straight without hearing my stomach growl.

2) Are you paying attention to your body clock, scheduling your writing during peak productive hours? Do you feel clearest and work best in the morning, after lunch, midnight, or at hushed 4:00 a.m.? A colleague says she’s sharpest at 6:00 a.m. Another handles her administrative duties all day and then works on her articles from 10:00 p.m. to midnight. Your answer is the right answer. We each have our own inner clock.

3) What type of break really refreshes you? Jogging around the block, dipping in the pool, whipping up a smoothie, cleaning out a junk drawer? Some time management experts advise a session of 45 minutes for working and 15 for a break. I limit my breaks to five or ten minutes—walk outside, fold a little laundry, eat a carrot.

4) What kind of sound do you need? Total silence? Soft background music? Pulsing foreground music? The soft roar of other people nearby? Listen to what pleases you. Use ear buds or headphones or, if no one’s in the room or the house, blast your speakers.

5) Where are you most comfortable working? Home study, bedroom, kitchen table, office, library, restaurant, café, hotel lobby, mall center court, bowling alley? Or changing off? The only price is lugging your laptop, books, articles, and files. With my tote, clipboard, and plaid school pen-pencil case, I buy a venti latté at the mall Starbucks, commandeer a whole table, and, despite the distracting parade of shoppers, lose myself in writing.

6) What do you want to see while you’re working? A blank wall on which to project your brilliant hypotheses and theoretical scaffolding? A packed bookshelf of experts in your field for goading inspiration? A meaningful totem nearby (your reading merit badge, your first marathon t-shirt, a statue of Ganesh)? I keep an inscribed bracelet on my desk from a dear friend: ‘Thoughts become things. Choose wisely.’

7) What writing equipment lets you dive in quickest and happiest? Laptop, desktop, iPad, Surface? Or old-fashioned blue-lined school notebook, yellow pad, and favorite pens? A combination? Writing guru Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones) pointed out the supreme satisfactions of handwriting, yet even she could imagine herself using a computer, ‘closing my eyes and just typing away.’ When I don’t have to consult previous scholarship, I do the same—electronic bliss.

8) What type of writing surface must you have? A pristine surface, with no other files, paper clips, scribbled notes, dust bunnies? Or surrounded by your stacks of project files, reminders of your astounding prolificness? Let others bray pejorative labels like ‘obsessively neat’ or ‘hopelessly cluttered.’ Your goal is to produce.

Answering these questions will help you recognize your best work settings and fetishes. Honor your preferences and arrange your workspace accordingly. Ignore the guffaws of your partner, kids, neighbors, dog.

No matter how traditional, cliché, or outrageous, choose the environmental conditions and features that help you feel most relaxed and nurtured. By doing so, you will become more productive, persistent, and consistent and less exhausted. And better yet, you’ll be more likely to look forward to working and keep at it until, with great satisfaction, you complete the current writing project and launch into the next!”

© 2016 Noelle Sterne


Noelle SterneDissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and emotional counselor, Noelle has published over 300 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com


The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Textbook & Academic Authors Association. Read more about TAA guest posts here.