Utilizing Space to Improve Your Work

The power of physical space on our minds and ability to do work is fascinating to me. When I was younger I was convinced I wanted to be an architect. I wanted to build incredible houses with slides from second floor bedrooms to pits of foam and indoor hockey rinks. I was eventually persuaded to direct my talents elsewhere when I learned I didn't seem to have much interest in learning to actually draw well. However, I've recently rekindled my interest in the interaction between space and mental state.

Your space and your work

Think about the different places you work throughout a typical week or month. How do you feel when you sit down at your workspace at home? What if you work someplace else in your home? What is your mental state like if you go to a coffee shop to get some work done? The library? Or, even more dramatically, have you ever experienced the hyper-productive mental state of working on an airplane? Or perhaps the complete opposite? The specific mental states aren't necessarily the same for two people who are sharing the same physical space. However, I think it's hard to argue that physical space has no effect on the way we think and work.

Thinking vs. doing

A recent article from 99U illustrates this point nicely. In "The Thinking Mindset vs. The Doing Mindset," Art Markman describes two "ways of being" that many independent and knowledge workers seem to face; the days where the ideas come pouring in and the days where you just want to get things done. I can certainly relate to this feeling as I've noticed my own productivity seems to ride certain cycles. Every hyper-productive week I've ever had seems to be followed by a lull (or, perhaps Mr. Markman would call this a Thinking period?). Regardless, we aren't constantly in the same mindset day after day.

In the article, Markman offers a couple suggestions for ways to alter your mental state, to shift between Thinking and Doing and vice versa. Getting some distance between you and your work can help you shift into a more creative and brainstorming-esque mindset. Literally moving away from your typical workspace and the problem you're working on may help your mind re-engage with it on a different level. Your typical workspace is strongly associated in your mind with getting work done so moving away from it could provide the spark to enter a more Thinking mindset.

The wandering desk

I can see this clearly in the way I work. My typical workspaces are my home and the university library. However, at home my desk has occupied three different spaces over the course of the past few months. It started in the most typical place -- my bedroom. However, I quickly decided that spending my days working inside were a waste of beautiful Southern California weather so I moved my desk to the covered porch behind my house. After several weeks of doing most of my work sitting outside I decided to move the desk back inside (SoCal nights get surprisingly chilly!) -- but not back to my bedroom. Now my desk is in the living room and right next to the sliding glass door to the backyard. Even though my desk never left the premises, each position has put me in a much different mindset. I like the change of pace of working somewhere different, even if I'm ostensibly in the same location (which is part of the reason I don't have a "regular" table when I work in the library, either).

Independent work, knowledge workers, & spacial liberty

Obviously, my fascination with independent workers and coworking spaces also fits into this model. I think individuals who aren't required to come into an office every day quickly realize the power physical space can have over their mental states and work. Whereas the typical knowledge worker doesn't have a whole lot of say in their physical surroundings if they work for a company, an independent worker suddenly has nearly complete control of the environment in which they work. I think this is why so many end up seeking places like coworking spaces. There is something lacking in the typical home office or café workspace that many people seem to be finding at coworking spaces. I could speculate about what that is -- but I'll save that for another article. The important thing to think about is your own work habits and how a tweak of your physical surroundings may result in a myriad of benefits.

If you have the freedom to do so, try changing your workspace. You can be like me and move your desk to a new room (or even outside) or try working at a coffee shop you've never been to or drop into a local coworking space for a day of work in a new environment. We may be more of a product of our environment than we realize -- but we also may have more control over our environment than we realize, too.