A Place of One's (Work's) Own

I’m moving this month, and one of the things I’m looking for in a new apartment, even though I live alone, is a second bedroom where I can put up an office. My current place is a small 1-bedroom, and while there is a little computer “nook” in one corner of the living room, it’s just not working for me.

I’d noticed my productivity falling off soon after I moved in, but having just gone through a break-up, I assumed it was just normal post-relationship trauma and that it would bounce back once I got back on my feet.

It hasn’t.

For a long time I told myself I was just unusually busy, but that’s not it – my workload hasn’t increased. It wasn’t until the last few weeks that I’ve realized: I felt busier than usual because I wasn’t getting as much done. Where I used to be on schedule, or even ahead, with most of my work, I’ve been rushing to finish things at the last minute, which has kept me perpetually on the cusp of being behind, and occasionally good and fully late.

One of the biggest factors in all this is not having a clearly defined workspace. My apartment is simply too small – I’ve been here 10 months and I’ve still got a wall of boxes that I haven’t been able to unpack! But the worst part is that I’ve ended up using the same small space to eat, work, and relax in. And that’s simply no good.

Here’s the thing: when you live and work in the same place, both living and working suffer. When you’re just trying to relax – say, by watching a movie or reading on the couch – your work-life is still there. And when you’re trying to get some work done, your daily life is all around you – the stack of magazines under the coffee table, the TV, the stereo, the book you’re reading draped over the sofa arm.

We get conditioned by certain places. Sitting down in an upright chair at a desk primes us to work; sinking into a sofa tells the body that it’s time to relax. When we mix the two – I’ve been working on the sofa a lot with my laptop – the signals get crossed, and the mind  tries to go in two ways at once.

So, for instance, last month I taught an evening class four nights a week at the community college. I’d get home at around 9:30 or 10:00 pm and pick up my book or switch on the TV. But every night, this little knot of tension would rise up in my chest, this anxious feeling that I was forgetting something, that I was slacking off. In the daytime, when I was actually working, I’d keep getting drowsy, or my mind would wander, or I’d be tempted to check the TV – you know, just to see.

This isn’t a quirk of my personality. Well, not just a quirk of my personality. Psychologists have found consistently that environmental cues can trigger certain states of mind in us, making us work harder or move more slowly.

In a study at Stanford, for instance, a group of subjects was primed with objects related to business and office life (like boardroom tables and briefcases) while a control group was primed with neutral objects (kites, toothbrushes). Tests performed after the priming showed that those whose minds had been directed towards business became more competitive and less cooperative than those whose priming was not business-oriented.

In practical terms, that means that just seeing the accoutrements of business life can make us more competitive – which is good, since usually when we’re around such objects we’re in the business world where we need to be more competitive.

Priming can have all sorts of odd effects. It can make young people move more slowly (after unscrambling sentences containing words like “Florida”, “wrinkled”, and “gray”); it can make people more likely to clean up after themselves (in a room scented with cleaning fluid); it can even make us smarter (students asked to picture themselves as a professor scored higher on a cognitive tests than students asked to picture themselves as a soccer hooligan)!

So what cues are priming me when I sit down to work in the same space where I relax, or vice versa? My pencil cup and laser printer might be telling me “it’s workin’ time!” while my cozy blanket and TiVo remote suggest “it’s playtime!”.

It’s clearly important to keep these spaces – and their signals – better-defined. If I were moving in today, I think I would have divided the room up into a clear relaxing area and working area. Instead, I’ll be moving soon, and my first priority is a clear working area, a second bedroom that’s “work only” so I can “go to work” in the morning and have some sense of separation from the rest of my life – and when I’m done, a place I can leave and “come home” from.

By the way, as a single guy, I often eat dinner on my sofa as well. Which may be why I’m always hungry when I’m working…

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