Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

Simon Winchester’s Writing Barn

May 12th, 2018 · 22 comments

Photo by Holly Pelczynski/Berkshire Eagle Staff

The Part-Time Farmer

I’ve been reading Simon Winchester ever since I came across a paperback copy of The Professor and the Madman in my first year of college. Winchester writes on an eclectic mix of topics — from dictionaries, to natural disasters, to bodies of water, to, most recently, the history of precision engineering (naturally) — and his audience follows him because he’s good at what he does.

As I’ve noted many times on this blog, and argued in Deep Work, thinkers who produce unusually original and productive bodies of work often operate in environments that they specifically contrived to help support these cognitive efforts.

Winchester, I was pleased to recently discover, provides a nice case study of this rule in action.

As reported by the Berkshire Eagle, the British-born author splits his time between New York City and a small  farm in Sandisfield, Massachusetts, nestled in the southern Berkshire Mountains: “a bucolic agrarian space with geese, chickens and gardens.”

While in Sandisfield, Winchester lives in an old farmhouse where he keeps his collection of old clocks. When it comes time for deep work, he retreats to a writer’s barn (see above picture) with an interesting history.

Here’s Winchester:

“[It’s an] old timber-framed barn, a onetime granary built in upstate New York back in the 1820s. It was a tumbledown ruin when I bought it, and so I had its posts and beams trucked down to where I live…”

As he elaborates:

“Now it’s filled with books and so much sunlight that in the winter I have to take a break from writing for a while. My view is a line of pine trees, a meadow and newly planted apple trees. And there’s an owl that often comes in the evening.”

One of the more interesting ideas emerging from attention capital theory is the surprising role environment can play in supporting elite cognitive performance.

Professional writers seem to be at the cutting edge of this experimentation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the near future, we start to see more serious attention paid to constructing seriously deep spaces as our economy shifts towards increasingly demanding knowledge work.

In the meantime, if you need me, I’ll be browsing Berkshire farmland on Zillow…

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Speaking of intentional living, one of my favorite bloggers, Liz Thames of Frugalwoods fame, recently published her first book: Meet the Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living. It tells the story of how she and her husband Nate left a busy life in Cambridge, MA, to live simply but richly on a 66-acre homestead in Vermont. I recently interviewed Liz for my upcoming book on digital minimalism, and was fascinated by the conversation. I recommend both her blog and book.

22 thoughts on “Simon Winchester’s Writing Barn

  1. Josh says:

    Fascinating to see how your tactic of adventure studying has matured and deepened over time since your student days Cal. Interesting to think about the impact environment can have on your attention, whether it be a sacred space for maintaining attention on deeply spiritual (and often abstract) knowledge as the old Gothic cathedrals provided or bucolic barns filled with sunlight and old books for writing fabulous books. Keep up the good (deep) work Cal!

  2. Tracey says:

    I think this might work for some people, but others don’t think that their work or themselves should be taken so seriously. Keep in mind that this blog advocates nonconformity (which can be a good thing), but that society sometimes punishes nonconformity as, say, pretentious eccentricity. I’m not trying to be critical, just trying to add my own thoughts.

    1. EA says:

      yes and no. Knowledge workers are often measured with a combination of quality and quantity of output.

  3. MB says:

    Awesome post! Glad you had time to post it.

    It’s beautiful in it’s simplicity. I think I’ll do some writing in a quiet place today.

  4. Andy James says:

    This is a little off the topic, but I think this is interesting. Andy

    http://time.com/5261181/young-americans-are-lonely/

    America’s next big public health issue may be loneliness, which a new study finds affects most Americans. But the group most at risk isn’t the oldest generation — it’s one of the youngest.

    The research, conducted by health insurer Cigna and the market research firm Ipsos, found that young people ages 18 to 22 are the most likely to be lonely. Loneliness is a major threat to Americans’ mental, physical and emotional well-being and can have huge consequences for public health, given the well-researched connections between loneliness and health issues ranging from substance abuse to heart disease.

  5. Toan says:

    Thank you for your nice post, Cal! As a student myself, I have experienced different effects of workplace/study environment on my performance. There are moments where I struggle to stay concentrated and engage in deep work, while sometimes I can concentrate for 2-3 hours without distraction easily. I just want to ask, how can I maintain my concentration at optimal level for a long period of time, and more importantly, how can I do it more consistently?
    Have a nice day

    1. Josh says:

      Buy Cal’s latest book “Deep Work”. It’s honestly not a purchase but an investment in your student career, and will break down the methods it takes to concentrate intensely for long periods of time. Attention and focus are products of training, and there are definitely days maintaining focus is more of a slog than others. Cal’s book “How to be a Straight-A Student” is also an excellent playbook to cracking the curve without spending excess amounts of time to get there.

  6. Eric Casado says:

    A writing place like that looks very ideal for Deep Work. However, not everyone still has the resources or possibilites to buy a farm with a place like that. I think that an option to that, specially to people who lives in town would be to create an space like that. What ideas can you come up with as sugestions to build or create a place like that in department or a house in the middle of the city?

    1. EA says:

      What I use is noise cancelling headphones, and white noise.

  7. Ruturaj says:

    Sometimes it good to be old fashioned.Just to be remote where no one can reach you

  8. Adam says:

    Dr Newport when we can expect your new book?

    1. Bjarke says:

      i think he release a new book about every 4 years at least that what it seem like from the previous ones if i remeber correctly

  9. Geoff says:

    Oh I love these posts Cal.

    I’m so jealous. I literally want to become a ‘stay at home writer’, except by ‘stay at home’ I mean writing from a shack on a laptop I specifically programmed to do nothing but write…

  10. Carl says:

    A beautiful example of a place to nurture one’s his own brand of expression and do nothing but that! –Very relaxing just imagining it.

    1. Carl says:

      On another note, in addition to having an ideal domain for an author to delve deeply, I see how critical it is to find relevant research and studies–many not well known– to support topic matter. Can you give me a primer regarding the best way these are discovered?

  11. In the third para, first line “As reported by the Berkshire Eagle, the British-born author splits his time between New York City and a small farm”——-there is an extra space between the words ‘small’ and ‘farm’ !!!
    Ha ha..just kidding. My cognitive performance in reading is improving.

    Its great to know how much an environment can influence deep work, I remember the “the grand gesture” thing which you mentioned in deep work.
    Thanks Cal

  12. Ava says:

    Farming is the best artwork in the whole world and people who are doing farming this means they have an art of creativity.

  13. Luke Rudolph says:

    I need a barn (minus the chickens) now….

  14. Rebecca says:

    Hey Cal – first of all congratulations on the birth of your third son! I’m a huge fan of your books and blog and am very happy for you, knowing how wonderful it is to have three kids 🙂 (side note: we‘ve met in Boston, I‘m Maggie‘s cousin)
    I just came across this blog post about the importance Iceland places on reading and writing.
    https://www.good.is/articles/iceland-writing-publishing-literary-traditions
    The described author‘s habits are exactly along the lines of Deep Work and the above post. The Icelandic people seem to have all understood the inspiration and creativity that a connection with nature and a certain level of isolation can provide.
    All the best!

  15. Alan says:

    I wonder how far one can get to this state of mind by visualization alone.

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