Cal Newport recently wrote about Simon Winchester’s writing barn. In his post, he discussed the benefits of location-boosted cognition, a term I think Newport may have coined. Location-boosted cognition is the idea that people who need to concentrate deeply should do so in places that lend themselves to deeply focused thinking.
One commenter in the thread below Cal’s post remarked, “…not everyone still has the resources or possibilites [sic] 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 [sic] to build or create a place like that in department or a house in the middle of the city?” I thought it was a good question, and so did Cal (he addressed it here). Here’s my thoughts: the creative juices don’t flow and focused thoughts don’t percolate only in big-person-playhouses on picturesque farms. The elements that make Winchester’s writing barn a hotbed for deep-think are the same elements that make other places conducive to concentration: relative isolation in pleasant surroundings.
I think if we thought creatively about where we can think creatively we would be surprised at the many free options available to those of us who won’t be part-time hermitting on a New England farm anytime in the near future.
Here are four of my favorite places that are conducive to location-boosted cognition (and they’re free):
First, the chapel in a large, local cemetery is perfect for the solitude one needs for extreme concentration. Though such a venue might creep out a few (a lot?), it really is a great place to think and write. It’s perfectly quiet, beautifully decorated, and comfortably furnished (wooden pews might hurt the backs of some, but I can endure for a solid hour before I need to stretch my legs. Some chapels may even offer padded pews). Of course, the key here is to make use of the chapel when it’s not being used for a funeral service. There’s also the matter of conducting yourself with a bit of reverence and respect, so don’t bring any drinks or snacks. If the chapel is unavailable, and if the weather is nice, one could find a quiet spot somewhere in the cemetery to sit and write – not among the gravestones (which would be weird), but at a park bench nestled somewhere in the landscaping or near a water feature. Large cemeteries that are well maintained have numerous such spots.
Second, like the park bench at the cemetery, the park bench at an actual park offers similar benefits. When choosing a public park, it’s best to look for one that is either uncrowded or large enough to provide some private space. Otherwise, a person looking for a thinking place might find themselves dodging Frisbees and petting friendly dogs more than they are doing any actual deep thinking.
Third, the large libraries of universities provide the quiet and isolation (and books!) that we need for the best location-boosted cognition. There’s a local university library near me that allows non-students to use their facility up until 9 pm. This same library has a labyrinth-like, multi-level arrangement, and the study desks are dotted here and there in out-of-the-way nooks and crannies. It’s quite easy to find a quiet spot and not see another soul for hours. Perfect.
Finally, there’s always the woods. Explore a local trail, find a clearing with a view not too far from the main path, pack a folding chair, and enjoy the sounds of nature. Look for two things: lack of humans, and relatively easy access (unless you like extreme hiking before you do extreme thinking). The nice thing about using nature for location-boosted cognition is you are free to bring coffee and snacks, whereas in cemetery chapels and university libraries those things are frowned upon. If you do pack in food and drink, please be sure to leave no trace. Seriously – don’t litter. In fact, bring a plastic bag with you and on your way out pick up trash that was left behind by your fellow humans. The friendly woodland creatures will thank you.
So, if you’re like me and you don’t have access to the perfect writer’s cabin or mad scientist’s subterranean lair, you can still utilize some really great places that lend themselves to location-boosted cognition.