How much do environments matter?

The last week and a half has been really productive. I’ve written a lot of code, made progress on my research project and learned a lot of stuff in the process. Unfortunately it’s all been in one area, but that’s a matter for another post. But given how productive I’ve been one thing that I’ve been wondering is how important an environment really is to productive.

I’m usually of the opinion that environment (both physical and in terms of setup) is really important for any sort of creative or intellectual work. However I’m not quite so certain anymore. My current working setup is less than perfect. Though I have a nice DIY standing desk and a brightly lit office I also share the office with six other people and at times it can get pretty busy and crowded. I have a very powerful work machine but most of my recent work has been in a basic Ubuntu virtual machine with no customization other than my Bash and Emacs setups.

Despite the fact that my environment is not perfect the last week has probably been the most productive I’ve had all year. This begs the question: are environments really as important as I had thought they were? Or is it sufficient (and necessary) to have a project you’re really interested in? Of course, I understand that this is a personal question, so I’m just going to try it for myself.

What I’m starting to think is that the environment doesn’t need to be perfect, it just has to be “not painful”. There are some things that I just can’t stand: I can’t stand bad chairs, environments that are too noisy or too high of a room temperature. But once I have air conditioning, a standing desk and decent set of headphones I can quite easily tune out everything else. Similarly, once I have a command-line UNIX environment and a decent enough keyboard I care much less about what window manager I’m using, what size my monitor is or even what my language or toolchain is. Once I’m in the zone there’s very little that I care about.

I would say that environments matter, but only to some extent. After a point an interesting and exciting project can easily make up for any deficiencies in the environment. However, the opposite – a great environment but an uninspiring project – hardly makes you want to jump out of bed in the morning and get to work.

In addition to my Macbook and my work machine I have a small Eee PC lying around with a bare bones Arch Linux install on it. As a small experiment I want to see if I can be as productive on that machine as I am on my work machine. In addition to my research project I’m taking a programming languages class and TAing a functional programming class, so I regularly find myself in the mood for some OCaml hacking. Admittedly it won’t be a scientifically controlled and rigorous experiment, but it will be interesting to see how far an interesting project can compensate for a less then ideal environment.

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Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

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