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Tea & sound & tools & shades

25 July 201812:00AMintrospectionscicommtea

Every one of the strategies described in these chapters has worked for some writer somewhere; at least some of them are bound to work for you.

I recently finished reading Air & Light & Time & Space by Helen Sword*. It's a book about academic writing, where the author asks a bunch of successful academic writers about their writing habits. It's part research project, part show and tell and part self-help book, which might sound like an odd combination but it's a surprisingly successful one.

It doesn't insist on beating you over the head with mantras about waking up at dawn and sculling black coffee and pounding out a thousand words before breakfast. Instead it's descriptive, and makes suggestions, and encourages you to think about what might work for you.

So that's exactly what I'm going to do.

I don't think it's a coincidence that my writing habits sound a lot like my thesis year. Partly that's selection bias - it's by far the most work I've ever done in my life. As examples go, that's definitely my big one.

But it's not just that. I had a lot of work which had to get done. The things I did while I did that work, even if they weren't directly a part of it, wore a groove in my brain. It didn't just reflect the way I work, it changed the way I work.

I'm going to try and break that experience down into its component parts. Partly for my own reference, and partly because maybe it'll work for someone else out there too.

Tea

While I'm certainly a fan of drinking the stuff, the real value for me is in the process of brewing it. It's something to do with my hands and my mind that's not typing. It gets me out of my chair, even if it is just to the kitchen. It forces me to stop and stand and wait for things to boil and brew.

One of the nice things about switching to loose leaf tea (aside from the fact that it tastes better) is that it draws that process out. It makes everything a little less mechanical and a little more thoughtful.

But I'm sure the caffeine doesn't hurt either.

Sound

There's a lot of research that shows sharing an office with other people - especially if they're not working on the same projects as you - really puts a dent in your ability to focus.

Headphones aren't a perfect solution, but they do at least let me choose my background noise. Perhaps more importantly, they've grown to serve as a social cue to the people around us that you're trying to focus and that they shouldn't interrupt you.

But really, I think this one is purely Pavlovian. I just spent a lot of time blocking out a noisy office last year. As a result I've conditioned myself to work best in the sonic and mental environment of the imaginary medieval library that lives in my headphones.

Tools

I have a handful of red Pilot G2s. They cost about four dollars each. I carefully open each one up, and replace the .7mm red ink with a .5mm black one. The red barrel makes them easy to identify, and fills exam invigilators with horror. The thinner refill makes them so much of a joy to write with that I will gleefully cover my notebooks in doodles.

I have replaced laptops because the keyboard was too spongy or flexed in the middle. Doesn't have to be mechanical, but it does need to feel solid. There needs to be little bursts of satisfying tactile feedback to make you want to keep hitting the keys.

Every keypress, every scratch, should be satisfying. The bare minimum is that your tools don't make your experience worse, but the ideal should be tools that make you itch to use them.

Shades

(Excuse me while I pivot wildly from poetic to practical...)

I wanted the last heading to rhyme with 'space', hence 'shades', but what I'm actually talking about here is regular old glasses. And the reason is pretty simple:

Splitting headaches really put a dent in your productivity.


This feels like it's been a little self-indulgent. I think asking you to post your own version is probably doubly so. I absolutely wrote this for myself and I'm sharing it just because I can, but that's not really the point.

I love hearing about how other people work, but even if you don't share, I'd encourage you to at least think about what your habits might be. Speaking from personal experience, once you understand what it is that helps you to work well, you can start to do it a little more deliberately.

* Can we just take a second to appreciate what an amazing last name this is?

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