Workplaces Beyond Rules

After the release of Productive Anywhere, a couple of readers asked me about my favorite place to get things done. Over the last few years, dozens of spots have been my home and my workplace, but which of them did I prefer?

As with many tough questions, it’s probably better to start at the opposing end and look at the workplaces I dislike: Cubicles! Luckily, I only had to work at one twice in my life. The first time was during a short job as a callcenter agent and the second during an internship with the European Commission’s Delegation to Colombia and Ecuador.

The callcenter job was hellish and mind-numbing by itself, as you might imagine. Screaming into a cheap and nasty headset trying to interview pensioneers and stay-at-home mums about their shopping habits is about as bad as it gets once a country moves beyond creating employment opportunities in sulfur mines. Now multiply the people screaming into those cheap headsets by 30 and put all of them into one large, overheated room and you’ll understand why I became highly motivated to get a different job immediately after starting out at the callcenter.

Work at the Delegation was much nicer and also way more interesting. I was even so lucky to have some great and smart colleagues – but my desk in the 11th floor of a random office building in Northern Bogotá simply didn’t feel like the appropriate place to do great work. Somehow, the atmosphere there did confirm the stereotypical image of a slow EU bureaucracy. As much as I enjoyed my stay there, I doubted that working in a cubicle (or even a normal office environment) would be something I’d enjoy doing in the long run.

Experimenting with Work Environments

To improve matters, I ended up cutting some of the office hours towards the end of my internship. To compensate, I transferred part of my work to the studio apartment I had rented in the lively Chapinero area. Even though it was a very simple place, this move alone spurred my productivity, as it entailed a whole new freedom: Suddenly, I was able to decide on my own about when to work and when to relax, when to walk around thinking and when to isolate myself from my surroundings in order to focus completely on my job.

In the following years, I continued to experiment with different work environments while finishing my academic studies in Germany and Colombia. Coffeeshops did work, but not for everything: Until today I love to go there for brainstorming, simple reading and light writing. Preparing exams, reading more complex texts or doing final edits, in contrast, is best done at other places. Libraries work great for this kind of stuff and also to get things done I don’t enjoy particularly: I remember locking myself away for whole weeks when preparing a painful linguistics exam. Being at a place full of quiet and concentrated students (most of them reading and memorizing data for their respective exams) simply created the right ambience.

Going Beyond Rules

Over the past couple of years, I took experimentation even further: I spent time working in parks and in beach bars, in the apartments of friends and strangers, on airplanes and airports, on buses and boats. All of these had their allures, and I’d love to go back to many of them because of the good experiences I made.

I experienced two of my personal highlights during the creation of my first two books. When I started to outline Beyond Rules ((Still available for free at the link. I will take it down later this month to start working on a 2012 update, so be sure to grab it now if you’re interested!)) I discovered my personal “author’s paradise” on Earth: A cozy hotel right at the beach in Cartagena. In the shadowy patios, artists, writers and part-time philosophers of all sorts encounter Colombian tourists, elderly world travelers and the occasional group of students. The resulting energy provides the ideal surroundings for me to let my mind wander, get inspired and put a text together.

Later on, I made major breakthroughs for both Beyond Rules and Productive Anywhere at the shores of the North Sea in Denmark and Germany. This was a great environment to dive deeply into the chapters of the books and slog away for a couple of hours. Whenever it got too much and I felt like my head was exploding, going out to breathe some fresh air and get myself almost blown away by the stormy winds was just perfect to get unstuck!

My Favorite Workplace

So were these my favorite workplaces? In some sense, yes – but only in the context of what I was doing at the time! I believe that being able to choose our workplace on our own brings two huge advantages. First of all, our motivation will be higher, as described above: Choosing freely about when and how to work is an empowering experience. Secondly, different environments lend themselves better for different kinds of tasks: The library for concentrated editing, the beach hotel to get inspired, and so on.

The major downside to choosing our own workplace is probably friction: Finding out about what works and what does not is only in some part a matter of common sense or scientific research. To a large degree it’s a question of personal preference and also of the circumstances of your life. Also, procrastination can be much more tempting if there isn’t anybody around controling you. Choosing your workplace wisely thus becomes much more important. ((More thoughts on these issues can be found in Productive Anywhere, of course! In her interview, Lea Woodward shares some very interesting thoughts on how sometimes even a great place can be a bad fit for us to get things done.))

So what’s my favorite workplace, then? It’s hard to say. But if I’d have to choose one, I’d probably go for… no, I won’t put this here. It’s worth a post of its own, so I’ll keep it up for next week! Be sure to come back or subscribe for free to my RSS feed!

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