Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Where do you work?

I don't mean, what company or what business or what country or what city, I mean: In what kind of space do you work?

I am quite sensitive to work spaces, and I need them to be controlled and comfortable in order to inspire a good working process. That does not mean they have to be overly organised. As long as I find what I am looking for, I am fine. Actually, I tend to use clutter as a way to remind me of tasks. Once in a while - normally at the end or the start of a term - I go through everything on the desk and on the most imemdiate shelves, and clear it. Then I move what I know I will be working with in the next 3-6 months closer to the central work space, so when I look up from a task, I am reminded of the rest of the stuff waiting. Immediate to-do stuff ends on top of my keyboard when I go home from work, and then there's a diminishing urgency as items move further from the computer monitor.

This makes it a lot easier to remember all those little tasks that I need to deal with repeatedly or immediately, but it does have one unpleasant side-effect. When I have to focus on larger, complicated tasks, I get distracted and stressed by looking at all the stuff I otherwise really don't want to forget. And so I pick up that note by the telephone, I respond to the letter by the keyboard, or I leaf through the article lurking just to the left, and the larger task that demands more focus remains untouched. That's when I have two options: To clean the desk again and remove all those to-do things (impossible, really) or to move myself, physically, away. The distance I go depends on the task.

For a focused reading up on material for teaching, going through literature for leactures or reading lists or similar tasks demanding focus but not really such a tough challenge, I change from the office computer to the lap-top, and move into the bean bag in the office. Yeah, I know, I am lucky to have an office which provides a secondary work space and to own a lap-top, but the principle can still apply elsewhere. Just move away from the "short-term-task" space and look in another direction where it's not as easy to pick up everything waiting to be fixed. Pick up the book and turn the chair around. Since I am still in the office I am available for colleagues, students and people who really need to reach me on the phone, but I am not getting all the visual clues I have planted on the desk.

For more complex tasks, I leave the office. When I write an article, I need to focus. I mean, really really focus. I need to empty out all the clutter in my mind that pulls my attention elsewhere, and get into the "zone" - a state of mind that just ignores distractions. When I am deeply focused I ignore time, space, hunger, family and cold. I have come out of writing rushes frozen to the bone and shivering because I just couldn't be bothered to stop writing and turn up the heating. In that state of mind it doesn't really matter where I am, but to get to that point I need to wind down slowly. It is like a cleansing process, perhaps similar to what monks do while meditating. To get there I find that physical work is the best. Working out is not one of my strategies, despite the studies pointing out the benefits, but I guess cleaning and tidying does much of the same as a light walk. It also helps me remove those visual clues that pull my attention away. And as things around me become more tidy, I think about the work I am supposed to do, and gradually I settle down. Once I am settled I don't care what it looks like around me, so no, I am not a superwife in a superclean house. But at least the dishes will be done.

This only works for intermediary focus though. Working at home will quickly draw me back to the need to declutter the house, if I am doing something really tough. That's when I need to get all the way out. That's when I have visited friends in Bergen, New York and Urbino, spent a year in Umeå or rented a cabin in the mountains.

Today, however, I found something interesting - shedworking. I don't really need a shed in which to work, I have a house too-large for two people and can have as big a home-office as I care to organise. It's not for lack of space I am currently tucked into a chair in the corner of a shared home office packed with books and electronic equipment. But walking out into a shed might be the mental journey I'd need to be at rest. And right now I am looking out of the window, considering where I'd like to put that shed.

You see, I need to start a new, very complicated article which I have delayed doing anything about for at least 6 months. I should have been in New York, not staring at my garden. I'll go do the dishes and think about how to pretend I am in Italy. Perhaps a cappucino will help.

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