I don't care about your productive space – I care about your productive mindset

I'm in a laundromat. It smells like cat urine and old people. We had to pass on three different washers before we found one that wasn't full of cat hair, and I'm pretty sure the guy in the back is watching us for all the wrong reasons. I've been here for over an hour.

And it's been productive as hell.

The recent surge of professionally-made 'creative spaces' is pretty cool, in that it's created a bunch of comfortable environments for freelancers like myself to work in. They're modern, they're aesthetic, they have free wifi, and some of them even have affordable coffee. They add a layer of legitimacy to this 'not having an office' thing that thousands people are doing these days.

But they also pose a really dangerous trap.

The Princess and The Pea

We all know someone who uses their work environment as an excuse to be unproductive. Their every failing is the fault of what’s around them instead of their own productivity. They say it’s too loud, too quiet, too confining, too stale for their ‘creative process,’ and seem incapable of consistently producing material. These are often the same people who struggle with writer’s block, that oh-so-luring myth that so many young writers fall prey to.

Now, there are some legitimate complaints out there (ergonomics, sound proofing, and lighting come to mind), but feng shui is for airflow and insulation in pre-industrial family complexes, not the cubicle farm. Productivity is the product of functionality, which starts with the worker, not the wallpaper. Inspiration has nothing to do with it.

Productive Mentalities Vs. Productive Spaces

In order to work at my peak, I need somewhere to set my laptop, a power outlet, and a place where I won't be mugged. Wifi is a nice addition, having a bathroom on hand is appreciated, and if you offer me free coffee I won't say no. But when it comes to sitting down and writing solid content, productivity doesn't rely on those additions. It relies on me sitting down and hammering out content despite whatever might be going on in the background.

You can be distracted by anything. Noise, temperature, vibrations, the smell of your coworker's unchanged bandages; there are thousands of things that could distract you in every environment. But even when it’s quiet, you still need to make sure your mind shuts up.

The biggest thing that distracts me is stress. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t let go of something until it’s fixed, which means I tend to lose when I’m forced to play the waiting game. It doesn’t matter how optimized my workspace is — my head has to be in the game.

It doesn't matter how many succulents you own or how much you paid for that wall art — if you're distracted, you're distracted.

Master Your Mental Environment

A lot of people find they work better when they leave their traditional space, because they feel like they can leave their baggage behind when they go to the coffee shop. Work stays at the office, home stays at home, and their little corner of the coffee shop contains the perfect mixture of comfort, stimulation, and resources any creative could need.

That sense of productivity and focus, though, isn't a product of the physical environment alone. Most of the coffee shops I've worked in haven't been very ergonomic, and even special-built 'creative spaces' tend to match the comfort and resources of your local public library (without the small-town gossip, sadly) at the most.

What they do give you is an environment free of the mental distractions that fill your home and your office. When you go somewhere new, getting work done there is as novel as watching Netflix for six hours there. Your body (and brain) doesn't fall into your usual unproductive slump, because it isn't exposed to the triggers of your usual environment.

I consciously change up my work environment, not because those other environments are better, not because they’re inherently more productive — I do it to exploit my own mental tendencies. But, at the same time, I work hard to keep myself from relying too heavily on those external cues for productivity.

On its own my desk is a drug. But the coffee shop is it's own drug, too.

Your Desk is a Drug

Your desk is a drug. It's a pit of distraction. It your netflix machine. Your instant-gratification dispenser. You're unproductive whenever you sit at it, because you've allowed yourself to associate it with everything but working for the last however long you've had it, and that won't change if you only do your work elsewhere. Instead, every time you sit down at it, it sucks you in deeper.

The majority of drug overdoses take place in environments unfamiliar to the person taking the drug. When drug users consistently use the same drugs in the same environment, their brain (and body) preemptively prepares for it, based on whatever behaviors or environmental cues precede the drug use. When they use those same drugs in a different environment, their body is unable to prepare for it and thus incapable of handling their 'normal' dose. It's a well-documented phenomenon.

When you screw around for hours on end in the same space every day, for years, you get pretty damn used to screwing around there. But when you rely on expensive 'productive spaces' to escape your self-created procrastination pit, you're treating the symptoms instead of the issue: your own habits. Deliberately changing your environment to escape your own foibles is a great tool, but it's ultimately a crutch.

It's up to you to make whatever space you're in the most productive one around, using whatever tools you have available.