My desk is a comfortable place with an ergonomic chair, good lighting, friendly neighbours and not much noise. It's a place where I feel comfortable in the morning as I catch up on slack, make peace with the meetings on my calendar, and figure out what I need to do. And then, day laid out in my head, I move to somewhere I can think. True story: I’ve never plugged in the monitor on my desk.
It's not about background noise. I work from The Wing DUMBO as often as I can, not slowed down by Janelle Monae on the speakers. I love to code on trains. I write documents in cafes, triage bugs on the floor beside power outlets at airports. I've done a surprising amount of coding in play spaces full of sugar-high five year olds. And I can (and usually do) work from sofas and cafeteria tables in my office. Right now I’ve claimed a big comfortable armchair in a sunny part of the office far from anyone I work with.
That last thing is the key. It's not noise: it's interruption. Not even guaranteed interruption, the potential for interruption. If there’s a chance that someone might walk up and start talking, my brain won't even try to focus. I used to fight it and try harder, but years ago I realised that I could learn to work from a laptop and go hide any time I need to think. Then focus will come and thoughts will flow. There’s no better feeling.
Focus is a tricky thing. We talk about flow state, the process of getting deep into a project, code or words flowing so smoothly that you forget that the rest of the world exists. You emerge, maybe hours later, at some sort of natural stopping point, your body reminding you that it is a machine with needs, but the brain feeling satisfied and relaxed. It's the best feeling. But a sudden interruption, having to stop without time to close down the thought? That's painful. A Jenga tower of complicated data structures or ideas crashes to the ground. What a waste!
The brain generates its own interruptions too, of course. It’s not always easy to put away all of those memories and stray thoughts and choose to focus. When you're worried, your brain would like you to go deal with the worrying thing. When email comes in every minute, it's easy to keep dealing with the email first and never give your thoughts time to flow. Unless you're aggressive about disabling phone notifications, it's easy to find things to be distracted by. (I turn everything off.)
There are a million productivity tools out there to deal with this kind of distraction. I like tomato-timer.com for dedicating 25 minutes (a "pomodoro") to taking a run at a task. I love the contract I make with myself in Forest when I promise to ignore my inbox until I've grown a two hour 'writing a document' tree. But they only work with interrupts that you can control. For external ones, the only productivity tool I want is a guaranteed block of time. If nobody comes to talk to me, the Jenga tower stays strong.
In theory, this problem should be solvable in a way that doesn't involve hiding, but I've never found a good way of asking people not to talk right now. I've tried holding tightly to the thoughts in my brain while using a tiny sliver of attention to ask "can we talk in an hour?" or "sure, after I finish this Pomodoro". It's hard not to come across as rude though, and also, let's be honest, I don't want to talk in an hour; I want to talk when I get to a natural stopping point. But it's definitely rude to tell someone you'll come find them when you feel like it, even if most things people want aren't time-critical.
I would like to live a world where it's socially acceptable to say "FLOW STATE!" without taking your eyes off the screen and have everyone be ok with that. Can you imagine? But we haven't all bought in to the idea that headphones means don't interrupt yet (people, headphones means don't interrupt) so I'm not optimistic about us creating a shared vocabulary for focus any time soon.
Until we get there, I don't work from a desk.