Knowing what, how and where fuels your best work

“Working at home.” “A coffee shop.” “A walk or a run.” “A quiet office.” “Never working at home.” “A train journey.”

These are the answers I got at a recent workshop I was running. I’d asked attendees where they did their best deep work. Where did they have their best ideas? Where could they focus on solving problems?

Their answers didn’t surprise me. Just as one attendee was an advocate of working from home, her colleague next to him explained how she could never work at home, there were too many distractions. Their answers showed me what I already knew — that everyone is different. We all need different stimuli, environments and ingredients to get things done. There’s no one-size-fits-all for boosting productivity and getting stuff done.

The good news is that many employers are much more open-minded to flexible working. Gone are the days when the only option for getting work done is a fixed desk at an office. Last year I had a look around Microsoft’s London HQ. I was impressed by the choice of spaces available to an executive: a glass terrace, a canteen, a lounge and pods for quieter work. There might have even been some traditional desks somewhere, but I didn’t see any!

I’m lucky. My own personal work life is one founded on “no walls, no rules”. As an independent, I get to choose where I work. I started this week spending nine hours in Amsterdam, a city that consistently fuels my work and gets my fire burning brighter. The combination of walking and working in cafes, fresh air and sunshine, against a backdrop of jaw-dropping architecture and pretty canals, wins me over every time. It’s like a triple shot of espresso to my productivity. Boom!

I go to Amsterdam twice a year for this very reason. If you know you always get stuff done in particular place or in a certain way, keep on doing it. It’s why we go for that walk along the Thames, or sit at the same table in the coffee shop that overlooks the street. It’s why one shower is never enough for Aaron Sorkin (and it’s nothing to do with cleanliness).

So what fuel do you need to shine brighter and power you on? Here is a checklist for optimising your work life:

  1. Place. Place is one of the most important elements for me for being able to do my best work. I know I just couldn’t do what’s required at a desk staring at beige walls. And it’s often the combination of places that does it — that ability to move from one spot to another as my particular needs change. So, consider: what places get you fired up? Do you do deep work better in one environment and generate ideas in another? What’s important to you? Loud music or pin-drop quiet? Fresh air and open spaces or the buzz of the office? Give yourself permission — or ask your boss — to go to the places that inspire you and help you. Move around as you need to.
  2. Tools. I rely on lots of digital apps to keep me organised and get things done but at the same time I can’t be without a tangible pen and paper for my scribbles and list-making. I love the simplicity of a Muji notebook and one of their fineliner pens. Moleskine is also a favourite brand for jotting down my Good Times list. Having equipment that not only makes your job easier, but makes it a more pleasant experience, is important. Do you prefer an old-school notebook and pen, or a flashing cursor?
  3. People. Who are those important people who add value to your working day? I met up with a good mate Paul earlier today. Paul works in a similar way to me, and when we meet up to talk shop, his advice is invaluable. We “get” each other. So, who do you need in your work life that gives you encouragement, support, a listening ear? Who in your organisation would you take on a walk and talk with you? What kind of people are a good sounding board? And conversely — who are those that drain you? Who are the naysayers? There will be those people who think they’re helping you, but might be too narrow in their focus end up telling you what they want you to hear, not what you need. (Useful tip: don’t ask them for advice).
  4. Purpose. This is a biggie. In order for you to buy into your day-to-day work, it has to fit into the bigger picture. So, what’s driving you? What’s your overarching vision? What are you on a mission to achieve? What gets you up in the morning? If you can’t fit what you’re doing day-to-day into your high level vision, if there’s no alignment, then it’s going to be harder to motivate yourself to get the work done.

I’m a creative consultant, storyteller and coach who helps organisations, teams and individuals get fired-up at work.