Productivity Hack: try “location boxing” your activities to train your brain to switch gears


For the past week, I’ve been taking an hour or so at the coffee shop near my office to knock out most of my email and communications. Then when I get back to the office, I stay out of email as much as possible. The experiment has made me realize that shaking up my work environment can help me stay more focused and productive. It’s sort of like the concept of Timeboxing but with more of a physical twist. “Location boxing” seems appropriate.

Getting your head in the right place for a new activity is hard

There are four main types of thinking I need to do in a typical work week:

Design-thinking: Visual design and thinking about the user experience

Coding-thinking: Building new features, solving technical problems

Business-thinking: Internal communications, interviews, and helping out on some sales calls

Support-thinking: Bug fixes, and responding to questions from RescueTime users

It’s next to impossible to do any of those simultaneously and be effective. You have to get into the correct mindset for each one. Design and coding require substantial periods of “maker time“, while support, sales, and communications generally involve a lot of rapid-fire bouncing around from task to task.

Timeboxing is a great idea, but I’ve found it really hard to stick to. Maybe I’m a little too scatterbrained, but my meticulously planned out schedule can easily be derailed by things like email, which can swoop in unexpectedly and steal hours from my day. Plus it’s just hard for me to flip the mental switch between, say, customer support mode and design mode.

The answer? Restrict activities to a location

Taking advantage of my proximity to the ocean and working on a boat

Altering my physical environment seems to help me switch activities, for a couple reasons…

I can find the right place for the task at hand

I find coffee shops a little distracting when I need to really focus hard on a single task, but they’re great for a series of short, repetitive tasks. I get to enjoy a latte while I churn through emails that I’d otherwise pick at throughout the day. I don’t code or design very well without a second monitor, so that focuses me even further. My 13-inch laptop screen is pretty well suited for communications, and not a whole lot else.

The physical shift becomes a “switching ritual” that signals my brain that it’s time to start thinking differently.

There’s something about the change in surroundings that seems to make it easier to quiet down whatever gears are still spinning from the last activity and re-focus on a new task.

You can’t always move to another location

It’s not practical to go to a different physical location for each task. You’ll probably get the most benefit if you can identify a single activity that has a high potential for derailing the rest of your day and banish that to another location from your other work. Sometimes, though, you just can’t get away. Here are some other ideas for altering your environment:

  • Have different desk configurations. Try moving your monitor from one side of the desk to another as you shift tasks. Maybe a totally clear, uncluttered desk works better for certain activities, while a desk full of pictures and knick-knacks works better for others. The act of switching configurations might be just enough to jog your brain into a different mode. It’s sort of the “hyper-functionible workplace” version of this. For example, I have an adjustable-height desk, and I usually do my coding-thinking while standing, but designing while sitting.
  • If you work from a laptop, you can almost certainly find an unused space in your office that you can switch to without being too disruptive.
  • If you can’t change your environment, just get out of it for a while. Go for a walk, or do anything else to signal to your brain that it’s time to start acting differently.

Your turn:

Have you ever gotten any benefit from location boxing your activities? I’d love to hear how. Let me know in the comments.

Further reading:

Transitioning Projects, or searching for a state of flow.

Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule


  1. Thanks for an interesting blog.
    I’m sorry if this is to simple a suggestion. But my job requires a lot of reading, and when ever possible I locate my reading time away from the desk where i usually write. Libraries, reading rooms or even trains make suitable for those tasks.If this is not possible, I turn of my computer when reading.

    1. That’s a fantastic illustration of the point. Not only are you physically switching contexts – from a screen to a more physical medium, you’re also optimizing your environment to focus on the task by getting away from the distractions of the computer. Thanks for sharing!

  2. This advice can be utilized by commuters as well. I ride the bus an hour each way most days in which I use that time to plan meetings, catchup on email, look at my calendar and surf Facebook and Twitter on my phone. This helps me focus on things at the office that work better face-to-face like reviewing wireframes, having team meetings, etc.

    Thanks for the post.

  3. Hi Robby,

    Sorry for leaving this comment on an unrelated post, but it seems like the RescueTime blog post has its comments locked.

    I noticed a slight issue with the syntax of your Google Spreadsheets code (and I think this is why the other user, Chris B, was having a problem).

    When you copy and paste from your blog post into Google Spreadsheets, it interprets the quotation marks as the “curly” style of quotation marks, which screws up the syntax for some reason. Basically the easy fix I found was to just retype both quotation marks around the ‘at’. This should fix the problem.

    =VALUE(LEFT(A2, FIND(” at”, A2, 1)-1))

    should be changed to

    =VALUE(LEFT(A2, FIND(” at”, A2, 1)-1))

    1. Ah, I see that I just ran into the same problem. I think that WordPress must automatically convert any quotation marks to the ‘curly’ style…

    2. Sorry, I meant that this is relevant to the *IFTTT* blog post, not the RescueTime blog post (which is… your entire blog). 🙂

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