It’s been blistering — upwards of 30 degrees for the past few days here in Milan, where I am spending a few weeks this summer.

My happy gallivanting around this enchanting city, finding digital nomad friendly places, has come to a standstill.

The heat has forced me inside, taking refuge in my tiny, but blessedly air-conditioned room.

Free of distractions, I thought it would be the ideal spot to bulldoze through my to-do list: recording and editing videos for the upcoming online course, writing blog posts, revamping / rebranding my websites, building sales funnels.

Instead, I found myself pacing like a caged lion, restless and distracted.

While the video work was fine for a while, I couldn’t seem to settle on any kind of other content creation or work.

This begs the question: how much does the environment influence how productive you get?

Sure, there are the things that constitute a minimal viable environment, like acceptable noise levels, enough light, and reasonable temperatures.

But that’s not what I’m talking about here.

I found that there are some very specific environment factors that influence how much I get done, how much I get into the high productivity zone, and ultimately, how much I move my projects forward.

A Clear Target

Vague intents like “work on my website” mean I’m going to be hanging out on Facebook, Reddit, or Product Hunt.

On the other hand, if I have a specific thing to do that requires roughly between 25-45 minutes to do, then I get it done.

For reference, 25 minutes is the time interval the Pomodoro technique recommends — I find it incredibly effective.

This means I break down what I want to do into chunks of 25 minutes or so, and work through them one at a time.

Music

I’m a big fan of Apple Music because of their family plan. But my heart is with Spotify’s mood-specific curated playlists.

I pick one of the Focus ones, and beautiful music flows into my earbuds, familiar enough to keep it interesting (acoustic covers are a favourite), and unknown enough that it disappears into the background, without interfering with my flow.

A Clear Workspace

I’m not the most neat person in the world. I try hard to be so I can set a good example for my kids.

But when it comes to a work environment, my desk, my workspace MUST be clear.

Somehow I just can’t think and be effective when there’s stuff all over my line of vision.

The same goes for my screen.

I may have a bazillion applications open, but when I start that Pomodoro timer, I make sure to maximize the one app I’m working in, so it fills up the whole screen.

A Notebook And A Special Pen

There’s something about having my spiral notebook open to a blank page, pen poised to make a note of stuff as I’m working.

Oh, and it needs to my special, favourite pen. I don’t even remember where I got this pen — it has a pen on one side, and a highlighter on the other. It’s fabulous.

I like jotting things down as part of my thinking and working process.

It could be the hex code of a colour while working on a graphic.

A random thought that I don’t want to lose.

A quick flowchart of next steps.

Whatever. I love that little spiral notebook, and once it is open, and my special pen right there next to it, it signals my brain that it’s time to work.

Not Facing A Wall

This one is weird. Perhaps it’s a reaction to the desk in my undergraduate dorm rooms being pushed against the wall, facing a nondescript neutral beige.

I suppose I was meant to affix things to it — postcards, pictures, cute memorabilia.

I never did.

Point is, now I need to be able to look up and see space.

I feel claustrophobic if I look up and there’s a wall.

To be fair, I can’t decide if it is facing a wall, or having my back to the room.

Either way, I can’t seem to settle if that’s how my workspace is set up.

I’m still pondering this last point.

I’m planning on staying in this charming little boutique hotel for the next while, and short of having to move the desk (not really doable), I will have to find a way to make it work while it is against the wall.

Meanwhile, I spotted this little garden, hidden away and likely meant for smokers.

No matter. The little garden table will do me fine, even though it is only in the shade, and therefore bearable, between 6 and 7:30 in the evening.

That’s the time the pretty garden is finally cool enough and before the mosquitoes and the bugs come out to play.

The best part of all this is that I now know, consciously and explicitly, what it takes to set me up for a great, effective work session.

I can’t tell you how useful it is to know these five points about how I work.

It means I can go right past a coffee shop with great wifi, because it doesn’t have a free table that doesn’t face a wall.

I know to bookmark my favourite playlists in Spotify.

And I know to carry my trusted little spiral notebook with me everywhere, right along with my trusty MacMillan, and of course, earbuds.

So I have a question for you:

Do you know what it takes for you to set up for a productive work session? Have you ever even thought about it?

I challenge you to do so now.

Take yourself back to times when you’ve just breezed through what you needed to do, and the times when you kept getting up and getting distracted.

What was the difference?

What is your minimal viable environment?