Study Hacks Blog

Thinking Outside the Home

May 24th, 2021 · 20 comments

Peter Benchley wrote Jaws in the backroom of the Pennington Furnace Supply, a short walk from his home in Pennington, New Jersey. Though he lived in a bucolic converted carriage house situated on nearly an acre of land, he preferred writing amidst the clamor of this industrial hideaway .

He’s not alone among authors in this retreat to an eccentric workspace near his home: Maya Angelou wrote in hotel rooms with all pictures removed from the walls; David McCullough toiled in a garden shed; John Steinbeck would bring a notebook and portable desk out on his fishing boat.

As I argue in my most recent essay for the New Yorker, published last week, these case studies are important to our current moment because, in some sense, writers are the original work-from-home knowledge workers. The fact, therefore, that they often go through so much trouble to avoid working in their actual homes might teach us something important about how to succeed with our post-pandemic shift toward permanently increased telecommuting. (Hint: perhaps subsidized work from near home needs to become a thing.)

I encourage you to read the full article to find out more about the lessons learned from these case studies (or, at the very least, to enjoy some gratuitous stories of the aspirational lives of famous authors).

20 thoughts on “Thinking Outside the Home

  1. Tarun says:

    The work from near home is a brilliant idea, Cal! Do I sense a new book idea—something about structuring knowledge work/college within the larger framework of the deep life and lifelong learning? I’ll read your New Yorker essay later this week, in my slow media block! (See? I’m a deep working undergrad student who read Digital Minimalism.)

    Also, I think E.F. Schumacher, in his book Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered argues something similar, where work can be a source of great meaning and satisfaction—a la Deep Work—rather than mind-numbing drudgery. To be clear, he doesn’t mention work from near home or remote work at all, but I think he does argue for workplaces sited near one’s residence, which, in turn is within a vibrant, thriving, self-sufficient community. I’ve only skimmed the book and will read it closely soon, so I’m not sure if my inchoate superficial knowledge of the book’s contents is accurate.

    Should deep workers salute one another with “Stay deep!”, or “Drain the shallows!”? And Zen Valedictorians with “Stay Zen!” and Straight-A students with “Keep quizzing!”?

  2. A cabin in the woods with internet access but no phone. 😉

  3. Greg G. says:

    Years ago, as a free lance programmer working on my own, I rented an office space in a mill building 5 minutes away from my house. I only really need a laptop, desk and a notebook. The shift from home to office was an important one. When I was home it was family time, phones and computers put away. At the office it was work time, focus and deal with home and family matters when I’m back home.

    These days I’m back at home and working at home and it’s getting tough. I either feel like I’m working too much or that I should be working when I should be off.

  4. Tyler Yell says:

    Given the (albeit budding) movement of knowledge workers with the choice taking on an RV (Airstream, etc.) to work remote in nature, it’d be wonderful to see a study on stress levels (hopefully lower), productivity & creative problem solving (hopefully higher) and other metrics to see what if there is increased valuable output and quality of life among the remote/ not from home knowledge workers.

    Great article, Cal!

  5. Greg says:

    Almost forgot… so I’m thinking about an outdoor studio shed now!

  6. Cecile says:

    That totally makes sense. I’m working from home and sometimes I’m overwhelmed with my domestic duties. I wake up pretty early to enjoy the quiet jours but sometimes it’s not enough. I dream of a tiny house in the back of the garden to lock me down inside and do a lots of writing prompt quickly. ?

  7. I know artists whose studios are rented spaces outside the home. Where there are fewer distractions. And then, at the end of the day, home becomes a place of rest and sanctuary to return to.

  8. Barbara says:

    Indeed. When I had to study for the California bar exam as someone who was already working (I had moved to CA from NY), I would go to random shopping center parking lots on the weekend, put my phone in the trunk, and lounge in the back seat with the study summaries and a giant pad of paper – I’m almost sentimental about that time because of the incredible level of focus it gave me. And now, as a practicing attorney during the pandemic, I’ve rented some space a few miles from my house where I can disappear into a neutral environment with no domestic cues in order to dive deep into my thinking and drafting. This article is brilliant and spot-on.

  9. Joerg says:

    Hi Cal,

    I love the article.

    One thing that comes into my mind are the included links/references to other articles, even in Chrome’s read mode.
    It’s always eating up a lot of my brain energy to not click on these links. An issues that you have been writing a lot about.

    Wouldn’t it make more sense to put them at the end ?

    Kind regards,

  10. Jesse says:

    Good shout to the Deep Work HQ! Got to get that fire pole to the ground level restaurant!

  11. Simon says:

    The essay mentions that Facebook and Twitter “announced that they would reduce the paychecks of newly remote employees who decide to permanently relocate outside the San Francisco Bay Area.”

    If I understand correctly, what was announced was that salaries would be proportional to the local market, which is different from a cut to those who prefer to work remotely.

    1. James says:

      Exactly! I actually took such a pay cut when I moved from CA to Alabama for my job. The folks in Alabama were apologetic. I was thrilled. Given the cost of living I had more spending power in Bama than I did in California, even with the pay cut. My commute was cut by….let’s just say a lot, it became more predictable, and I could keep more normal hours (I was showing up at 6 am in CA to avoid traffic). And I still work with folks from CA, so I’m a fairly good case study for this.

      This is one of those things that sounds bad until you think it through. For some people yeah, it’s going to be bad. For others, it’ll be fantastic. Every business decision is like that, though, and it’s up to us as individuals to make that choice for ourselves. In my case I ended up better off, by pretty much any measure. Knowing now what I didn’t know then I’d still have made the choice I did.

  12. Irene says:

    Some freelancers say that it’s cheaper to spend winter somewhere in Asia than pay all the bills. I’ve never tried it 🙂 But remote work definitely encourages to travel and seek absolutely new places.

    1. Eastern Europe is another option. But even in Italy or Spain, I have found relatively cheap places (200 €/month) when I moved there for the winter off-season.

    2. John Wolcott says:

      I live in Thailand year round, and the cost of living is very cheap compared to where I was from in NJ, USA. With that said, I still have the very same problem this article addresses, so I’ve been thinking of renting a second place (in the condo complex next to ours and away from the family) to get my work done during the day.

  13. Johnson Joseph Rozario says:

    When we will build a house, there will be a study room for both of us (Me and my wife).

  14. Eric says:

    I’d like to pick up a physical copy of the New Yorker magazine with this article. Is it in the May 17th issue?

  15. WorkTime says:

    Most of the pushback we get—whether from management, colleagues, or our own brains—comes with a simple phrase: “That’s how we’ve always done it.” We’re hardwired to resist change, especially when what we’ve been doing has been working okay, if not spectacularly. When the routine is the roadblock, “why” is the battering ram. Asking “But why have we always done it that way?” can reveal flaws and make way for creative thinking.

  16. Abigail says:

    I have been a freelance remote knowledge worker for 15+ years. A time that co-incided with my own children’s school years.

    Working from home was hell. I had an actual room just for for me and my computers. But it was in the house. It had doors into the kitchen and the living room.

    I was never tempted by domestic tasks. The TV did not call my name and I could ignore laundry all week long. I could even resist the Internet. Sometimes. But my kids knew me, and even when they ignored me, the pings of their phones and videos found me. School days are short and the breaks from school are long. The interrupts never stopped. Worse, I responded to the interrupts by one micro rejection of my kids after another. Painful for them and for me.

    Soon I was renting space nearby. Just an office that I split with other local parents. All there to work quietly. Every month I was so so happy to write that rent check.

  17. Ena says:

    OK but what to do If you don’t have this option, If you just can’t rent out an office or just a simple space to work in/study in!?

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