an office you can’t refuse

Author and productivity expert Dave Crenshaw and I met up the other day for a chat about writing books. We made a super-short video. It was fun.

It’s good to be reminded how weird I look on camera—it keeps me invested in writing newsletters instead of unleashing my inner Timothée Chalamet. Thanks to my reverse body dysmorphia, the longer I go without looking in the mirror, the more convinced I become that I’m a Hollywood heartthrob.

It’s a challenge getting work done in those odd chunks of time between business meetings: finding power outlets, bathrooms, decent WiFi. By the time you get yourself set up properly, you have to head to your next appointment.

“Forget Starbucks,” a colleague told me. “Actual restaurants do co-working now. You reserve through an app and they give you a table of your own. The waiter brings you coffee. You can even hold meetings or make phone calls.”

“What kind of restaurants? Like, restaurant restaurants? With tablecloths?”

“Tablecloths, yeah,” he said. “Most restaurants in midtown sit empty half the day. Why not?”

Who doesn’t want to play Godfather for the day? I love the idea of meeting with an agent or author like I’m Michael Corleone. They’d walk in and I’d be sitting at the table with nothing but a tiny cup of espresso in front of me, a couple of tough guys in dark suits standing over my shoulder. (Goons are available through the app for an additional fee.)

But writing demands a different environment than meetings and phone calls do. Thankfully, I recently discovered an indie co-working space that fits the bill. Park Slope Desk has been thoughtfully designed to appeal to the persnickety, the fussy, the easily distracted. People like me. After all, anyone comfortable studying for the LSATs amidst the chaos of strollers and barely attended children in our local Blue Bottle wouldn’t be likely to sign up anyway.

Park Slope Desk is like working in the Amtrak quiet car. No talking, no music. There’s even a rack of bright-red noise-cancelling earmuffs for when the occasional squeak of a chair or tap of a keyboard is too much for you to handle. Almost no one uses them, but they send a powerful signal: We’re here to work.

Is there a quiet car in your neighborhood?

Reliability is paramount for me, even more than silence per se. Flaubert once suggested, “Be regular and orderly in your life so you may be violent and original in your work.” Same applies for workspaces. Tools, too. In fact, your tools and your workspace are so closely intertwined it’s probably worth thinking of them as your environment. What can you do to create the most stable environment for your work?

In his newsletter, Craig Mod writes about fast software, meaning software that, for all its other faults, does not get in your way:

Fast software gives the user a chance to “meld” with its toolset. That is, not break flow. When the nerds upon Nerd Hill fight to the death over Vi and Emacs, it’s partly because they have such a strong affinity for the flow of the application and its meldiness. They have invested. The Tool Is Good, so they feel. Not breaking flow is an axiom of great tools.

Mod points to Sublime Text, a Mac text editor that operates without lag on even the largest files. Unfortunately, that app is designed for code, not prose, so Mod uses Ulysses, which is designed for writing but lags a lot:

[The] slowness feels indicative of unseen rot on the inside of the machine. The slowness is like an off smell. I don’t trust the application as much … Faith is tested: It makes me wonder how good the sync capabilities are. It makes me wonder if the application will lose data. Speed and reliability are often intuited hand-in-hand.

That’s not Mod’s imagination—laggy and buggy do tend to go together. Here’s the crux:

A typewriter is an excellent tool because, even though it’s slow in a relative sense [emphasis mine], every aspect of the machine itself operates as quickly as the user can move. It is focused. There are no delays when making a new line or slamming a key into the paper. Yes, you have to put a new sheet of paper into the machine at the end of a page, but that action becomes part of the flow of using the machine, and the accumulation of paper a visual indication of work completed. It is not wasted work. There are no fundamental mechanical delays in using the machine. The best software inches ever closer to the physical directness of something like a typewriter.

Here’s my dream work environment: a typical office prior to 1980. Mahogany desk. Chair. Smith Corona typewriter. Ream of paper, replacement ribbons, wastebasket. Stereo with a stack of classical and jazz cassettes. Mr. Coffee, Folgers, Coffee-Mate, Sweet and Low packets. Those little brown plastic stirring rods. Mug with a logo.

Totally inconvenient, kind of gross, utterly reliable. Tell me you wouldn’t get an enormous amount of “deep work” done in a space like that. All these physical items are now available cheaper than dirt because an iPad can do so much more. Yet I’d pay a steep monthly fee and commute halfway across the city to work in an environment like that. Wouldn’t you?

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