I'm not sure what my optimal writing environment is or should be because I have not put much thought into it. I know that when I am in the zone doing what feels like excellent work, a few things create my environment. It's a combination of music, coffee, good sleep, and the quiet of the early weekend morning.
During the week, the demands of commuting to and from a full-time consulting project account for most of my time. To function at my best, I want to get a good night's sleep. I get paid to think and solve problems for my client. I won’t do an adequate job if I’m tired due to a lack of sleep. I also noticed that my diabetes management worsens when I don’ get enough sleep. This means getting into bed early, preferably by 10 PM, so that I can catch at least 8 hours of restful sleep. There are some very negative consequences1 to be getting less than those 8 hours of sleep on a consistent basis so getting up earlier is just not an option for me. By the time I get home at 6 PM, my mind is spent, so I find that I do my worst writing at night.
I do most of my writing on the weekend. I write early in the morning, before my two kids and my wife wake up. This is anytime between 7 AM and 10 AM on the weekend. I won't get up earlier than 6 AM and lose sleep to get things done. Writing early in the morning is the best time for me. That's when my mind is the freshest. As soon as my family wakes up, the distractions start. Even if I put up a giant flag and a banner saying "Keep away! In the zone!”, I will still get interrupted.
I sit in a comfortable office chair and desk we purchased at IKEA a few years ago. It's worn from use, but I love its nicks and scratches. It has adjustable height legs, and I spent about an hour finding just the right height. For me, the desk is distraction-free. There are a few desk ornaments and at least two unfinished electronic projects on the side but nothing that would distract me from writing.
I keep the lights off in the "writing" room. It's not that I need a dark room to focus. It's just that I dislike artificial light. I'm a sun-worshipper. I would be happy if every day could be like late spring/early summer. The early morning sunlight coming through the window is enough to light the room in the summer. In the winter, I turn on a desk lamp. I do the least amount of writing in the winter.
I'm the coffee drinker in the house. Coffee helps me get started. It gets my brain going. No coffee. No thinking. Every morning I brew exactly two servings of coffee. One for my wife and me. She likes her coffee with cream and sugar. I drink mine black with a packet of Monk Fruit in the Raw.
I write while listening to music. I have an iTunes playlist of my favourite trance music tracks. It's the same playlist I use when driving on long trips or writing code. I have two; one is called Aural Opium1 and the other Brain. Something about trance music helps block out all distractions and focuses my mind. Most of the music is by Armin Van Buren, but the playlist includes music by Tiesto and Deadmau5. Sometimes I’ll fire up Spotify and play anything from the State of Trance. Fifteen minutes into my playlist, I'm in the zone. Sometimes I get into such a deep trance that time and place cease to exist for me. If it all works well, I notice the words (or code) on the page, my thoughts and nothing else. It's as though the writing app, the words and I are one. No other kind of music will work. I've tried to chill out to jazz, classical, top 40, etc. They don't work for me when writing (or driving). Trance music works.
I use the same headphones while I write. A worn pair of Grado SR60 open-back headphones. They fit comfortably over the ear and are not heavy. Once the music starts and I get into the groove of writing, I don't notice them.
I have do-not-disturb turned on on my iMac until 8 AM. I want to avoid any distracting updates from Twitter or Facebook etc. I love my social media, but it’s a time suck. With the best of intentions, I will pop into Google+ or Twitter for a quick update and quickly lose 30 minutes. Closing down notifications on all devices is essential. I have the same setup on my iPhone and iPad.
On the iMac, I open my writing app. I have several of these, including Byword, Desk, and MarsEdit. Why so many? Byword is the most distraction-free writing app I have. It’s just a blank canvas for my Markdown text. It’s also the only one of these apps with an iOS version and iCloud sync. I can start a post on my iMac and finish it up on my iPad. But it’s not very good for a post that involves a large number of images. The steps to get images uploaded from Byword to WordPress are too complicated. Byword doesn’t allow editing of existing posts, so I don’t dear hit publish until I am sure I’m ready. It’s best for spell-checked text-only posts. Desk is better at handling graphics and images and text together. However, sometimes Desk puts too much HTML around my text and images. It’s also the only editor that can format a post for Facebook. So I mostly use Desk when I write posts with mostly text with one or two images. MarsEdit is clunky and quite frankly the GUI isn’t modern or attractive. It has the least distraction-free environment. However, it does offer easier and faster control over image sizing, and it’s the only one of the three that provides an actual preview of how the blog post will look. This is my default writing tool for most of my photography posts.
To avoid the temptation to launch other apps, I will run the writing app in full-screen mode. No email apps. No browser. Just the writing app.
Then I start.
I am taking part in a free online course to improve my writing and blogging skills. Today’s writing prompt is “optimal writing environment".
- I sometimes get vertigo. I’ve seen many otolaryngology (Ear, Nose & Throat) specialists and had many tests over the last few years, but the doctors can’t pinpoint the issue. There are many types of vertigo. I do notice, however, that a consistent lack of sleep or stress triggers it. ↩
- I've never done any illegal drug, but I imagine that what I feel when I listen to trance might be close to an addicts' high. I'm most likely wrong. ↩
saddington8th January 2015 at 11:29 AM
fascinating. i love this breakdown!
Khürt8th January 2015 at 11:34 AM
Hi John. I am enjoying writing these and going beyond my comfort zone of technical articles. The topics/writing prompts are helping me push my thinking on my writing. Thanks for organizing this.