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Reblogged:Working Remotely ≠ Working From Home

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Writing for the New Yorker, Cal Newport considers two facts the pandemic have brought to everyone's attention: (1) remote work is a viable option for many knowledge-work jobs, and (2) home, as a remote location, is often less than ideal. The he does by looking at what professional authors, whom he calls "the original work-from-home knowledge workers," did to remedy the problem, in light of how our minds operate.

And Newport himself, who is something of a guru on such arrangements, was affected by the problem, as we see here:

Admittedly, some of my enthusiasm for the W.F.N.H. [i.e., Working From Not-Home --ed] concept comes from personal experience. After nearly a decade of commuting from my home in Takoma Park, Maryland, to the campus of Georgetown University, where I teach, the shift last March to full-time remote work felt abrupt. As a professor with a flexible schedule, I had always spent some time at home, but the sudden demand to do everything -- from teaching and writing to faculty meetings and radio and podcast interviews -- from my house strained my ability to concentrate (and also my three kids' ability to stay quiet while I was lecturing or live on the air). Last August, I finally relented and leased a modest office above a restaurant in Takoma Park's small downtown, which is a few blocks from where I live. The space is not luxurious; it features few windows, and each afternoon music from the restaurant patio below rattles the panes. Like Peter Benchley so many decades earlier, I now leave a perfectly lovely house, with its light-filled rooms and comfortable furniture, to instead go sit on a used office chair, staring at an undecorated wall, ignoring the clangs and clamor of the diners below. I no longer work from home -- I work from near home. And I've never felt more productive. [bold added]
And Newport has a good layman's explanation for why working from home isn't always so great:
The short, but distracting "commute" from your bedroom to your study could derail you more than you think. (Image by Şahin Sezer Dinçer, via Unsplash, license.)
... The home is filled with the familiar, and the familiar snares our attention, destabilizing the subtle neuronal dance required to think clearly. When we pass the laundry basket outside our home office (a.k.a. our bedroom), our brain shifts toward a household-chores context, even when we would like to maintain focus on our e-mail, or an upcoming Zoom meeting, or whatever else that needs to get done. This phenomenon is a consequence of the associative nature of our brains. Because the laundry basket is embedded in a thick, stress-inducing matrix of under-attended household tasks, it creates what the neuroscientist Daniel Levitin describes as "a traffic jam of neural nodes trying to get through to consciousness..."

Home is also rich in salient interruption. The human brain is adept at filtering out superfluous incoming information, but if this superfluous information is relevant to us it becomes difficult to ignore. The cognitive-science pioneer E. Colin Cherry famously dubbed this "the cocktail party problem" -- in reference to the common experience of suddenly cueing your attention to the sound of your own name popping up in conversation across the room at a noisy party -- and it helps explain why it's possible to work productively for hours at a bustling coffee shop, only to have your attention hijacked when you hear a familiar topic arise in a neighboring conversation. Viewed through this perspective, your home, at times, can feel like a coffee shop in which all the patrons are talking about things that you care about. Benchley's willingness to put up with the bangs and clangs of furnace assembly makes more sense once you learn that he had two young kids in the house during this period. The sound of hammers is not nearly so arresting as the sound of your own kids' whining. [bold added]
The mention of coffee shops -- common locations for such work -- may remind some readers of the idea, popularized several years ago, of the "third place," but it is not the same idea: By reading the whole thing, it becomes very clear what one should look for when trying to find a place to work that doesn't merely replace the proverbial distractions of home with fresh ones.

-- CAV

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