13 August 2013

Designing Spaces with Purpose (Chapter 5)

Here's chapter 5 of the book I started posting chapters of a few weeks ago.

“Our intention creates our reality.”
- Wayne Dyer –

The intention you have when designing a physical space can have a significant effect on how “successfully” you will be able to live or work within it. You may have to dig deep into your internal (emotional and mental) spaces to understand what your true intentions are, to figure out why certain aspects of a physical space don’t really support your purpose, or to discover which characteristics of it contribute to positive beneficial feelings you could use more of.

Making Multi-Purpose Spaces Work for You

I believe there should be a clear intention, or purpose, for every space in and around my home. In some rooms, this kind of focus is pretty obvious: I designed my bedroom, for example, to help ensure that I’d get a good night’s sleep. In other rooms though, the intention can be less apparent. Should my living room be a place for watching TV, playing video games, entertaining, watching a burning fire, and / or chatting with friends and family? Is the purpose of my deck to sit back and relax quietly in nature, to have large, boisterous outdoor parties, or grow and harvest various vegetables? Because we typically have a limited number of physical spaces, we may need to design them to support multiple purposes. And I think this is fine—as long as those purposes are compatible with one another.
I’m fortunate to have a space in my home that I designed just for me, and this room supports multiple purposes. First, I wanted to have a space where I could relax and decompress from life’s hectic pace by meditating, reading, and doing yoga postures. But I also needed a place where I could keep my body in tip-top shape by doing strength training and cardio workouts. To start, I used the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, in Lenox, Massachusetts as my inspiration. I take a trip there every so often, always returning to my busy life feeling renewed, refreshed, and centered. One of the rooms I particularly enjoy there is called the Sun Room, which is ridiculously simple in its decor: some sparsely populated bookcases along the back wall, a few (usually empty) desks, over-sized and well broken-in love seats or small couches strewn throughout, and a row of lounging chairs facing the wall of windows that overlook the mountains. There are no distractions (it's a "quiet space"), and there is no question about its intention—to help you slow down and relax. So, I covered a daybed my husband had with blankets and tons of pillows to make it the perfect place to sit and read (or curl up and nap), and added a big fluffy rug at its feet. A few trips to Target later and I had bookcases on which to store my various meditation and self-improvement books. All this satisfied my requirement for a reading area.
Next, I used a Shoji screen I bought from an oriental store to partition off a little corner of the room as my meditation space. Behind it, I put my cushion and a timer, and mounted a little shelf that would hold a few inspirational items. Above the shelf, I hung an abstract picture of a woman meditating. Later, I added a piece of art to the wall that I thought perfectly tied the meditation area to the reading area. It says: “With our thoughts, we make our world.”

Reading SpaceWorkout Space

For yoga and working out, I needed the hardwood floor to be bare, and to access to equipment—for example, a yoga mat, strap and block; weights and gloves; and most importantly, a little TV with a DVD player and VCR so I could use my videos. My friend Paige donated a TV stand, which I put into the corner and filled with DVDs and old-school video tapes. I re-purposed an old coat rack (which had a shelf and four large hooks) to hold the lighter equipment, pleasantly surprised when the hooks perfectly cradled my rolled up yoga mat.
While perfectly functional, I wasn’t completely happy with this room and couldn’t initially figure out why. One day I was reading in our den, and I when I looked up, I found myself thinking that it cultivated the Sun Room feeling much more than my multi-purpose room upstairs! Then it occurred to me that while it might be possible to combine the reading, meditation, and yoga intentions in a single space, my workouts didn’t really fit. The workouts I do are intense—many of the DVDs I use and the exercises I do are not at all compatible with relaxation! The cardio leaves me speechless and drenched, while the strength training circuits make me grunt and groan like a thick-necked muscle man in a gym. When I do these workouts, the music is loud, my body is pushed to its physical limits, and my mind works hard to retain focus. Plus, because the different workouts require different equipment, I can’t permanently keep anything inside the space, so it tends to look barren.
Now that I have a better understanding of why that part of the space isn’t working, I can investigate solutions, such as using a decorative fabric panel (or another screen) to hide the workout area when it’s not in use, but keep the things behind it easily accessible.

Thought Experiments
  • Once you’ve articulated your intention for a space, take a look around. Which things in the space support your intention? Is there anything that doesn’t? What about the arrangement of objects in the space? Are there things you might add, remove, or arrange differently, now that you’re looking at it this way? (For example, if you want your bedroom to be a relaxing, quiet space, ask yourself how many electronics and gadgets you should have in it!)
  • Do you have spaces that do (or must) serve multiple purposes? How are these purposes in sync with each other? Are there commonalities you can use to tie different areas of the room together? (For example, the wall art I mentioned.) If the purposes are in opposition with each other, think about whether you really “do it all”, or if you need to prioritize.
  • Do other people who you share spaces with agree with your intentions, or do they have other ideas? Do your spaces try to serve too many different people, and not really work for anyone? Talk through any differences and discuss ways to create designated areas within the same space, and / or leverage any commonalities to pull the space together.

Fostering Creativity in Your Spaces

Some time ago, I attended a free social media seminar. During the networking hour, I got into a conversation with the owner of the space where the seminar was being held—Takako rented out different sized work areas in the space by the hour or day to college students or other young people with entrepreneurial interests, with no long-term commitments or leases required. When she excitedly told me that the space “lent itself to creativity”, I was intrigued, and asked what it was about the space made her feel that way. She told me it invited creativity because nothing was hidden, and described how she modified it to expose all the “bones”—everywhere you looked you could see pipes, wood, and brick. Takako explained that when a space is exposed like this, one can feel safe to explore. There are no hidden agendas or things one can’t see, lurking behind walls or in ceiling panels. With this sense of safety, one is free to dream up new things. I thought this was in interesting way to look at space, and one I hadn’t really considered. Given that Takako was an architect, I assume she knows her stuff!
Based on this conversation, I started thinking about which spaces made me feel most creative, and what characteristics they had. The more I thought about it and talked with others, the more I realized Takako was onto something with the safety angle. For me, I’m most creative when I’m not stressed by clutter or distracted by other people with whom I don’t feel safe. I usually need to straighten up my physical spaces before I can do creative work and get into the kind of “flow” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described. Similarly, when I fill my “time space” with the clutter of too many tasks and the added anxiety about whether I’ll be able to get them all done, I have trouble being creative. When collaborating, I might worry what people think of my ideas, and can be afraid to take risks when others I don’t completely trust are around—the fear of being criticized can stifle my attempts at creativity. Yet when I’m alone and feel like I have all the time in the world, ideas come rushing into my head regardless of where I am: sitting in one of the Adirondack chairs on our deck, looking aimlessly out at the lawn; enjoying a bubble bath; driving with plenty of time to get to my destination; or waking up before the sun (and everyone else). I think some of my most interesting ideas, clever solutions to problems, and best writing emerge (and make me reach for Post-its and a pen pretty quickly!) when I am able to enjoy a high level of safety in my physical, mental and emotional spaces.
Catering to the senses in the physical space of one’s body also seems to be an important requirement for creativity: friends have voluntarily mentioned hearing (for example, playing music or inspiring videos); sight (looking at art, seeing the dried colors on a painter’s palette, taking in the expanse of nature); smell (for example, of wood in a workshop); and touch (having the right materials available). The idea of stimulating one’s senses to support creativity struck me as interesting, and at least two other situations got me thinking more about how to bring more sense stimulation into spaces where I’d like to be more creative. For example, one evening I was leaving a local high school after taking a continuing education class, and one of my fellow students (who happened to be an artist) randomly commented on the décor, noting how everything—lockers, walls, stairs, carpet, seating, paint, and so on—was covered in tan and dark blue. Sure I thought it was dull, but she lamented the lost opportunities to inspire young minds because of the lack of stimulation in the physical space in which they were sent to expand their thinking!  I also had recently attended a virtual seminar at work about “Gamestorming”, by Dave Gray.  In it, he cited a study done by Elizabeth Gould, which apparently contradicted earlier studies that brain cells do not regenerate. Turns out, when mice were kept in small cages (with little stimulation), her results were consistent with the original research. But when the mice were given more freedom and stimulation in their environment (in the form of colors, activities they could do to acquire food, and so on), their brain cells actually did regenerate. Dave then made a wonderful analogy to the cubes in our typical office environments, and how we “could not have done a better job” stifling creativity in most workplaces!
Noticing when you are most creative and thinking about how the physical and mental spaces you are in at the time support or hinder your creativity can be a useful exercise for anyone wanting to bring more fresh ideas into their lives.

Thought Experiments
  • What physical spaces make you feel creative? What characteristics of that space do you think bring about this feeling? (A friend of mine mentioned the outdoors, because “the peace and love found in nature quiet my ego”.) Consider how to bring more of these characteristics into other spaces that you have to live or work in.
  • Can you identify any barriers in your physical or mental spaces that might be distracting you from being as creative as you’d like to be? Consider whether any of those barriers can be traced to your sense of safety.
  • Are there ways you can think of to open up more “time space” in your day-to-day life to allow more creative ideas to emerge?
  • How much “sense stimulation” is available to you in the spaces where you’d like to be creative? Pick your favorite sense and try introducing more things to stimulate that sense in spaces you’ve designated for creative work or play. Notice what happens.

Escaping Your Typical Spaces

Even the smallest changes to the spaces in my life can sometimes free me up and help me get unstuck. Whether it’s a problem I’m trying to solve, or I’m just feeling overwhelmed with everything I have to do and can’t seem to move in any direction, creating a simple, short escape from either my current mental or physical space always seems to do the trick. For example, after visiting some friends one holiday weekend, I planned to work on this book. I didn’t sleep well the night before, and I woke up feeling cranky and sore (likely from all the driving). As the hours of the day ticked by, my anxiousness about not having written anything started to build. I had no energy and grew tired of hearing my own complaints, so I decided to go for a walk with my husband. As we did our typical loop through the neighborhood, I continued to complain about how overwhelmed I felt, how I’d never be able to get this book written in my spare time, and so on. He kindly alternated between listening, and asking questions that annoyed me at first, but then got me thinking. By the time we finished the walk, I was ready to just sit down and write already! The Thursday night before this same holiday weekend, I was nearing the end of a stressful week at work. I had a meeting marathon that Monday, then two full days of training, followed by a day packed with sessions I had to facilitate. We were leaving Friday after work, and I was trying to pack while practicing a presentation I had to deliver at a meeting the next morning. (I had to temporarily leave another meeting to give it, that’s how crazy my schedule was!) When my husband came home from softball that evening, I was in total panic. I didn’t feel comfortable with the presentation, I’d been going non-stop since I walked in the door, and I wasn’t anywhere near packed. I distinctly recall standing with my hands on the kitchen island, bending over with my head down between my arms, and feeling like something had to give. I eventually told him I was going to go upstairs and practice the presentation, because packing could technically wait until tomorrow after work if it had to. But then I got a better idea. I decided that before practicing the presentation, I needed to just stop. I sat in meditation for twenty minutes before practicing, finishing my packing, and having some time to spare! The bottom line is, taking just a few minutes to escape your current physical or mental spaces (even when you feel you have no time) can make you so much more resilient and productive.
Of course, everyone recognizes that as larger, more drastic changes to one’s physical and mental scenery, vacations are the ultimate escape. Whether they’re short “staycations” or week-long trips away, there’s something about removing yourself from the routine aspects of life that can really rejuvenate you. At the beginning of May I went with my friend Vianne to West Palm Beach, Florida for a long weekend. The weather in Boston was cold and rainy, and when we arrived, our moods were instantly improved by the sun and the warm, humid air. Over the weekend we shopped, ate and drank, soaked in the sun, and let go of all the things we typically worried about. Personally, the beach is one of my favorite places to escape to, and why I decided my bedroom décor should be inspired by it.
To create my escape inside this room, I first found a very nice patchwork quilt with matching pillow shams at an outlet store in Kittery, Maine. The patches are squares of different colors and textures—some shiny and silver, some silky and lilac-colored, others velvety and blue. I am a fan of decorating rooms based on a central element, and this bedding ensemble was it!  I already had a neutral tan carpet and some black Pottery Barn furniture, so the walls needed some color. This room also had a cathedral ceiling with two of the walls extending high up into a loft, whose walls I had already daringly painted a dark burgundy. I thought a light purple would look nice joining up with the burgundy, so I painted two of the walls a lilac, pulling one of the colors from the quilt. I also wanted to pull one of the blues into the walls, but not have the same colors on opposite walls. For some reason, I was obsessed with not having the different colored walls look too symmetrical. I laid on my bed for hours upon hours until I figured out how to organize the colors on the various walls so they’d be just a tad off

Beach-themed Bedroom

Looking back, I understand why I couldn’t have the colors on the walls be completely symmetrical: the beach (in other words nature) is not in any way, shape, or form symmetrical—it’s random, whimsical, and free, with the kind of total abandon that allows you to relax and encourages you to just..let..go. Anyway, I completed the look by finding the perfect artwork for the wall above the bed— a photo of a dock that led to the beach, at dusk, just as the sky broke into a soft shade of purple. I had it framed in black with gold trim (to match the furniture).

Thought Experiments
  • When you’re feeling overwhelmed or stuck, try doing something to change your physical or mental scenery, even for just five minutes. Take a short walk, try meditating, or even just sit in an area of a room where you don’t normally to get a new perspective.
  • Think back to when you felt centered and relaxed while in a “vacation space”. What is it about that space that makes it feel like a vacation to you? Are there ways you can bring aspects of the vacation space into your more daily spaces?
  • Imagine you were on vacation right now and could do anything you wanted with your time—what would that look like? Can you re-prioritize any activities to create more space in your life to do those things now?
  • Try taking a weekend to yourself, even if you don’t physically go anywhere. Do whatever you want to do whenever you want, and savor every moment!

Reframing Your Space Perceptions

It’s easy in today’s fast-paced world to get “burnt out” on the physical spaces one lives or works in. At these times, it’s also tempting to think about making a physical move like changing your job or moving. Some people I know have made these kinds of changes to their living or working spaces and have reaped tremendous benefits in their mental and emotional spaces as a result. And, I’ve seen even more people hop from place to place, on an endless search for something they never seem to find. After thinking about this a great deal, I’m of the mind that reframing one’s perception of a physical space with a clear, internal purpose can be an effective alternative.
For example, I currently work at a software company, and since taking on more management responsibilities my “time space” no longer feels like my own. There are days (some consecutive!) where I am in collaborative meetings with colleagues straight through from nine to five, and am still expected to get individual work done. We have three buildings on campus, so getting to meetings often involves traveling, and there are really no designated breaks for things like grabbing a coffee, eating lunch, or even stopping to use the rest room. Not long ago, I started getting into a state about this, feeling anxious about keeping colleagues waiting and watching as my resentment about the lack of space in my schedule grew more intense. My out-of-work life wasn’t much better—my mornings were packed with exercise, meditation, and writing, plus I had a busy post-work social calendar, meeting up with friends for dinner, dancing, taking classes in other things that interested me, and so on. I basically never slowed down!
I started to daydream about my ideal day, which allowed me the freedom to do what I wanted when I wanted. What if I could take a half hour nap whenever I felt tired? Or, if I was suddenly motivated to write a poem, I could go scribble it down? Or if I could use the mornings (when I’m typically more creative) as meeting-free, sketching time? What if I could meet a friend for lunch on occasion, and have my after-work time free? What if I was able to work on whatever task I was most motivated to do at a particular time (work or home-related), instead of being forced into a specific time box in which to do a subset of the tasks I needed to accomplish? Unless you work for yourself, you probably can relate to what I’m describing. But the reality is, society has a way of forcing us into schedules that don’t always sync up with what our bodies or our minds truly want to do.
So what could I do to improve my situation? Should I really stop exercising and doing my meditation? That didn’t seem right! Should I change jobs, or become a consultant and work for myself?  It seemed like after the initial distraction of something new, I’d end up in a similar place. Should I stop doing all the fun things I picked up after work, given that they typically fulfilled me more than my job and kept my social circles alive?  At first I felt trapped, but slowly came to realize I still had choices.
I thought back to an exercise my friend Paige and I had done a while back, intent on discovering our personal values. These values permeated both our work and home lives, and were a good representation of what made each of us feel happy and content. Perhaps obviously, one of mine happens to be “quality me time”.  If I don’t have enough space for myself, I feel unsettled. Taking that personal value into account, I decided to make small changes to things that were under my control—and most of that had less to do my actual physical spaces than with shifts in my mental ones.
I started with my morning routine. Somewhere along the way, I had forgotten that my exercising and meditating activities were my choice, and really part of taking care of myself!  And if I wanted to do something else with the hour and a half (like writing, reading, or sleeping), no one was stopping me. As soon as I mentally reframed the situation in this way, I appreciated doing these activities again, knowing that if I wanted to, I could always reclaim the time for different things (or nothing). Next, I started thinking about small changes I could make at work that would make me feel more comfortable. For example, because I felt I sat too much during the day, I now have a standing workstation, and I suggest “walking meetings” whenever I have one-on-ones with people (and the weather is good). Interestingly enough, others are appreciative of the idea and often take me up on my offer. I’ve actually started taking stretch breaks every hour or so. And, if I’m late to a meeting because I had to prepare a nutritious lunch or take a rest room break, I have gotten better about making my colleagues wait (though in truth, several of them are late too)! They’d have to say for sure, but I think I’m more pleasant to deal with and more engaged in the meetings because I feel less stressed overall. So what about my busy social life? While it took about a month to shift things, I now have certain designated days of the week where I do something out, and other ones that are non-negotiable “open” days. That’s not to say I always do nothing on those days, but having the open space (as opposed to being scheduled every night) gives me more freedom to decide what to do. Whenever a possible activity comes up, I ask myself how closely it aligns with my other four personal values, and make a decision about whether to attend by prioritizing it against other things I could be doing with the time. And if I borrow from an open day because scheduling requires it, I’m sure to give myself one back! 
I’ve learned that when you have a clear understanding of what really makes you feel good, you can look around and make small changes to your physical and mental spaces to improve your situation. Although sometimes they’re worth the risk, big, sweeping changes aren’t always necessary, and won’t always improve things. A collection of little changes over time can be even more effective not only because they help you deal with spaces you can’t change, but because they have a side effect of making you feel more confident and empowered.

Thought Experiments
  • Are there any physical spaces you feel like you absolutely have to get out of? What characteristics of these spaces make you want a change? Have you been in a similar situation before? Consider making some changes in how you think about or react to being in these spaces, and notice whether it helps alleviate some of your discomfort.
  • Take some time to discover your top five personal values. (There are many resources online to help you to this.) Which aspects of your home and/or work spaces support these values? Which do not support, or even conflict with these values? Are there any adjustments you can make to better align them?
  • Take an inventory of where you spend your time, and see if you can’t allocate more “time space” to being in physical and mental spaces that are highest priority for you.

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