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Dispatch from a Writing Shed

I’m writing this from a rental property, on a hillside overlooking the northern reach of the Taconic Mountains. A key feature of this property is a small outbuilding, designed and built by the current owner as a quiet place for visitors to work. Spanning, at most, twelve feet square, it features a daybed, a heating stove, and a desk arranged to look outward toward the distant peaks. A ceiling fan moves the air on muggy afternoons.

Here’s a view from the desk:

This rental property, in other words, includes a canonical example of one of my all-time favorite styles of functional architecture: the writing shed. (Indeed, as the owner told me, I’m not the first professional writer to use this space for this purpose in recent years.)

In my daily life in Takoma Park, Maryland, I don’t lack for interesting places to write. We designed the library in our house, which includes a custom-built Huston & Company library-style desk, specifically with writing in mind. (If you’re interested in what this looks like, the Spanish newspaper El País recently published a profile that includes a nice shot of me at my desk.) When I need a change of scenery while at home, I’ll also write on my front porch, where, during the grossest days of the DC summer, I’ll use a large floor fan to blow away the mosquitos and moderate the temperature. I also spend a considerable amount of time working amid the comforting din of our local coffee shop.

But as long-time readers of this newsletter know, I’ve always felt that there was something particularly special about the idea of writing in a quiet shed nestled in a quiet piece of natural property, such as what was enjoyed by Michael Pollan, David McCullough, and, perhaps my favorite example, E.B. White:

Which is all to say that I was excited, on arriving at this rental property, to spend a few weeks wrangling the early stages of a new book in a writing shed of my own.

So what have I learned so far?

Writing sheds don’t make the specific cognitive act of writing easier. It’s tempting to believe that the right aesthetics will usher in the muse and transport your efforts into a time-warping flow-state. But this doesn’t happen. Writing is still hard, requiring you to marshal multiple parts of your brain to work in synchronized and focused tandem toward the impossibly demanding task of producing well-crafted sentences.

But these sheds do seem to improve many of the general factors that surround this act. For example, they’re wonderfully effective at dampening the siren call of distraction. These rooms are used for a single purpose, so they lack the associations with other activities or interests that can so easily hijack your attention. The calming, natural environment beyond their windows also has a way of lulling the parts of your brain uninvolved in the writing task at hand into a harmless quiescence. Meanwhile, the novelty of their setting seems to lower the energy investment required to convince your brain to slip beyond its cacophonous inner-chatter and enter a deeper state more conducive to focus.

This all combines into a notable increase in mental stamina. Sessions that might have lasted ninety minutes at home can easily stretch to two or three hours amid the slow quiet of the shed. The writing is still hard, but it’s a more sustainable sort of hard.

There’s a lesson lurking here that extends beyond just writing: when it comes to cognitive work more generally, psychological factors matter. Whether you’re writing a book, or crafting computer code, or solving a business problem, or analyzing noisy data, you’re attempting to coax sustained abstract focus from a human brain not necessarily evolved for such intensely symbolic processing.

Of course elements like setting should really matter, as should other subtle elements such as how many total tasks you’re juggling, or the degree to which your day is necessarily fragmented by distraction. In knowledge work, productivity is about psychology as much as it is about tools and process. But we often ignore this reality.

As I can attest from personal experience, as I sit writing this essay, watching the clouds of an early morning rain shower clear off the distant mountains: If you really care about producing quality work, these softer factors matter.

4 thoughts on “Dispatch from a Writing Shed”

  1. I don’t have a long term rental property but after arriving in UK from Hong Kong, I started moving to different places in terms of day-trips to short (like 2 days 1 night at least). Even with changing environments from walking, running, commuting by train across the city, being in a cafe to staying in a hotel room I look forward to its inferior design and even great view, I am more able to have more ideas and even write an article on Apple Notes on my small smartphone (iPhone 13 mini).

    When I am at home I hardly do anything.

    Productivity should be sustainable without sacrificing creativity and any manipulation of human psychology which will eventually bring burnout or depression. Currently software introduces a lot of UI/UX tricks making people feel like doing more, but it will eventually become a kind of caffeine creating debt and burden.

  2. Wow, Cal! Already started working on your next book? Way to go 🙂 And what better place to kick off your next project than from such a pristine, idyllic spot!

  3. This spot with the working shed looks absolutely perfect for you! What a great find.
    I can imagine that in addition to the excellent layout of the shed and lack of distractions, the unpolluted fresh air doesn’t hurt either.
    Your observation about psychological factors is an excellent point and I would say contributes to many people not reaching their best cognitive effort.


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