The Best Places to Get… Unproductive
I work from home. That is to say, my work is wherever I choose to make it.
Certainly, I work from my home office, which I like very much — stand-up desk, two 27-inch Apple displays, no commute, and a kitchen stocked specifically for me (Ok, and the family). That’s not to say it’s perfect — it’s not — but the good far outweighs the bad.
However, there are important reasons for me to get out of the home office. Some of them are practical. I often want to meet with clients at their offices in Boston, connect with someone over lunch, or ideally, I’m at an offsite, facilitating a visioning session or a design sprint. It’s also true that after a few days working at the house, my productivity goes down because I get antsy, even claustrophobic, and I have to get out of the house.
In reality, my work from the home office tends to be about productivity — pounding out words, getting tasks done, working through emails or taking calls. As I think about it, my setup might even be optimized for this type of work, and that’s a great thing. One of the biggest benefits I get as an independent consultant working from home is that I’m able to attack problems and create strategic value with great efficiency. That’s good for me and good for my clients.
But there’s a problem with this setup—I don’t want to be productive all the time.
You see, creative thought matters. It matters especially to me, because I’m selling creativity as part of the value that I offer to my clients, either directly or indirectly. Even more importantly, I have to exercise my creativity. Just like eating or sleeping, if I go too long without it, my productivity suffers, and I’ll actually start feeling lousy. The reality is that it’s much harder to be creative in a productivity-focused space, like my office. So I purposely choose to leave the home office, in the quest of unproductive time.
So where do I go when I’m looking to practice creativity? The answer is almost always different, but I believe there are a number of key attributes that help me find, what I call Creative Spaces (While these factors tend to be true for me, your mileage may vary):
One of the most important factors in a place to queue up my creativity, as far as I can tell, is that it is not the same as the last time. Essentially, one key is that I mix-it up and don’t settle for the same place every time. It never fails that when I had a great session at one spot, I go back a day or two later and I can’t get anything going. There are probably other reasons for this, but I strongly suspect that serendipity comes from a certain amount of freshness which drives a new perspective. I often work from coffee shops and can get in the creative flow there, but it is amazing to me that as long as I vary the spot, whether it be a Starbucks, Peets, Nero, or the ultra-local hipster roaster, good things happen (Also, caffeine).
Related to mixing it up locations, is that ideally the space will be inspiring in some way. This can come in the form of high (Capital I) Inspiration — places with amazing architecture, lots of natural light, or interesting culture. One of my favorite examples of this in Boston is the Museum of Fine Art (I love to sit in the Atrium bar or restaurant and luxuriate in the space, or I camp out in front of a great masterpiece until I can get some deeper understanding of the art). On the other hand, I would describe some spaces — lovingly — as low inspiration, that drip with interesting ideas, but you have to dig a bit to find them. Think about your local library, which may or may not be a beautiful space in and of itself (although many are), but it is the content within that can provide new perspective or exciting ideas. All you have to do is go looking. These places of inspiration tend to boost my own creative confidence and ignite new ideas like wildfire.
A key attribute for Creative Spaces is as much about the place as it is about protection from distractions. Just like productivity tends to be about limiting blockers to truly delve into the work at hand, creativity must be shielded from the interruptions of our day, such as digital notifications, co-worker chats, and the like. The goal, of course is not to focus more, but to un-focus, to let the mind wander — ultimately to get to what I call a “dream-state”. A Creative Space will protect us from our easily-distracted selves and other interlopers, so that the dream-state is achievable. A protected space should be public, (plenty of sensory white noise, but not overwhelming), calming (could be a natural setting like a park), and allow you to be alone (you should feel anonymous and comfortable being alone with yourself and your thoughts).
The goal, of course is not to focus more, but to un-focus, to let the mind wander — ultimately to get to what I call a “dream-state”.
4. To Be — Or Not To Be — Stationary
I think it would be a mistake to think of Creative Spaces only as specific buildings or rooms where you are sitting down and working at a table. Some of my most creative work has been done when wandering through a city like Boston, perhaps even looking for a space to work, but not really settling anywhere. The advantage of being a creative wanderer is that there is new inspiration around every corner. A powerful tool that is easy to practice is to become a “Traveler” — essentially embracing a mindset where you are viewing everything with new eyes, as a traveler to a foreign land might, even if you are in a place you’ve been to a thousand times. Travelers tend keep their eyes up to see the world around them, with equal parts wonder (curiosity and awe), spontaneity (openness to new opportunities and experiences), and insecurity (outsider status produces hyper-awareness). For what it’s worth, I think this is very different from a “Tourist” mindset (which unfortunately often looks like a game of sight-seeing bingo). Most importantly, inspired wandering often leads to a space where the creative flow can continue and perhaps be more easily captured.
So that’s it. For me, combining some or all of those ingredients are what makes a true Creative Space. When I’m at my best, I am actively seeking out those places, giving me a much-needed respite from the relentless drive to be productive and efficient.
One aspect to Creative Spaces that I didn’t mention is privacy. For many writers, artists, and thinkers, a private work area is the key. Examples abound — you’ve probably heard of these places: a cabin in the woods, a quiet hotel room, or the artist’s studio — but I don’t have a private Creative Space (besides my home office), so I can’t speak to it. I wonder if a place offering privacy is actually where the artist can be most productive. Any artists out there, feel free to comment…
So what makes a Creative Space for you? If you aren’t seeking out Creative Spaces to be “unproductive”, maybe now is the time to start. Let me know how it goes!