A three-step technique for creating space, slowing down and enhancing creativity.
“When one has much to put in them, a day has a thousand pockets.”
One of the challenges of living, working and socializing all from home during this Pandemic-induced lockdown is that the spatial structure of our days has been largely dissolved: where before we’d have a repertoire of different spaces for different activities, now everything’s happening at home.
If you think about a typical pre-COVID day for someone who works in an office for example, events are naturally distinguished by where they take place.
In my case, I’d get up, exercise in the park, cycle to the office, work and have discussions in different meeting rooms, go out for lunch, return to the office, go for a walking meeting, perhaps zip across town for a meeting in a café; and then after work, I’d often meet someone for food and sometimes go a concert or an exhibition: all in different, distinct locations… in short, my day would have as its backbone an elaborate spatial journey.
But with this lockdown, even though much of the content of my former lifestyle has been recreated digitally (including the parties- the subject of another post), it’s all now happening in my flat on my laptop. So all this experience has lost any meaningful spatial component.
The troubling consequence of this is that the day can feel without shape, and time can seem to slip past; it’s relatedly more difficult to remember what happened… and despite in some sense now having more time… it’s easy to feel as though I have less.
Moreover, without clear demarcation of work and home life, the preoccupations of the day naturally infest my evenings… it becomes more difficult to turn off, and equanimity and mental freshness can suffer.
Having struggled with this, I’d like to offer an analysis of why this happens based on how we humans apprehend time and space, followed by a three-step technique for structuring your home-life during the lockdown in which you can conduct a substantially more spacious, creative and calm existence.
Before we get to that, though, let’s consider how we relate to time and space cognitively, to understand our options.
How we experience time
Space and time are deeply interconnected in our way of understanding the world, and indeed time is mostly conceived through spatial metaphors.
We compute these metaphors so effortlessly, that we’re rarely aware of their presence in our experience. But whenever we “squeeze in a trip to the gym between meetings” or “look forward to the summer”, or talk of “distant memories” a “crowded schedule” or “way back when” or indeed when we enjoy “bitesize” content or bemoan the boringness of a “long argument”, we’re borrowing our mental mastery of space to imagine and reason about time.
Specifically, our spatial metaphors for time carry an underlying mapping:
- time = space or journey through space
- moments of time = locations or objects in that space
These metaphorical schemas are amazingly flexible and sophisticated. When we say a busy day is “back-to-back” with meetings, we’re imagining the day (time) as a container (space) and our activities (which take time) as objects (smaller space-occupying entities) filling that container. In this example, the objects fill the container so tightly that they press against each other, leaving no space (i.e. time) for that coffee at which you wished to pick my brains, or whatever. Therefore, even if I just respond “sorry I’m back to back” you immediately grok my meaning.
This is of course taken to a nefarious extreme by calendars, which reduce time to a grid of boxes in space- with very potent, and many regrettable, consequences for our experience of our lives. That though is a different subject to the one we have on our hands here.
Now, while the high-level mapping of time to space is almost ubiquitous in cognition, there are interesting cultural and contextual variants. In Chinese culture, time goes up and down, not forward and backward, as it does in western cultures. We’ll avail ourselves of that flexibility later. Even with the forward/backward time relationship in English, we flexibly use different sub-variants, without necessarily realizing that that’s what we’re doing.
“Wednesday’s meeting has been brought forward by two days. What day is it now on?”
Some will say “Monday”, others “Friday”. Both make perfect sense, but which you choose depends on whether you imagine from an object- or observer-centric framework. In the observer-centric case, the event currently sitting in the space of Wednesday is an object being brought forward towards you, the observer, which will land it on Monday; but if you assume an object-centric perspective, you are Wednesday and move forward two days in time, landing on Friday. Check our Lera Boroditsky’s extraordinary work on the embodied cognition of time, from which these examples are taken.
Anyhow, this mapping of time to space is of course a good design principle for the mind, since, in the normal peripatetic run of things, different events happen in different spaces, as we saw earlier with my routine. This natural pattern or constraint cascades down into how memory works: indexing very thoroughly on the spatial. We remember things primarily by where they happen, and only indirectly by when. This is incidentally why “memory palaces” are such a potent device for remembering things in sequence (i.e. time): they leverage our powers of spatial recollection to structure long temporal sequences in our imaginations through imagery.
Why living all of life in a confined space can mess with our sense of time, and feel cramped and stressful.
We’ve seen how our experience of time is rooted in our apprehension of space, and how this is reflected in memory. So when we stop moving around over the course of the day, we shouldn’t be surprised that it messes with our experience.
And this is why a day spent all in one spot will tend to feel like it’s passed quicker: as we experience the sequence of activities in our day, each is a little bit less distinctive and differentiated than it would be under normal conditions because it lacks spatial context, and the different portions of the day then bleed into each other.
This interfusion of the different parts of the day diminishes them all. Your yoga headspace carries into your work headspace carries into your argument with your flatmate headspace carries into your creative time headspace, and the resources of your mind are never fully focused on any one of these things.
And this lack of distinctness to individual moments in your day has its flip side in memory, where because there are no spatial hooks for it to gain purchase on, it becomes difficult to remember what we did: there are no differentiated locations to trigger recollection. It’s as if all the photographs have been made on top of each other on a single print.
And when we lack spaciousness like this, things quickly begin to feel claustrophobic, monotonous and stressful.
How we can control our experience of space and time using our imaginations.
We’ve seen that time is spatial, and that when we take spatial experience away, it can be stressful and confusing. What to do about this?
Well, it turns out that our dependence on space is both the disease and the cure to this one: by imagining and relating to our spaces differently, we can regain control of our experience of our time.
In order to manipulate back into health our diminished experience of time, that is, we simply have to manipulate our experience of space- with the tools at our disposal.
This might seem tricky, given we’re stuck indoors, but in fact our experience of space is much more highly contextual, subjective and full of opportunities for alteration than we normally imagine, or commonly admit.
This is because space as it arises in our experience (which we often confuse with the space of physics) is not a feature of the world, but of our relationship to it. By changing how we relate to our home spaces, we can transform them.
One way of seeing this is to think of how we tend to be surprised when we revisit places last seen in early childhood: they seem much smaller than we remembered, because when we were small they were relatively bigger in relation to us.
This phenomenon goes way beyond the size of our bodies, into their skills, interests and athleticism: people with heavy backs perceive slopes as steeper, for example; we experience the world in terms of how we can act within it.
To get a handle on how our experience of space is our experience of our possible movements, ask yourself this: have you ever had the strange experience that an empty room can come to feel larger when it is filled with furniture?
How can this be? Well, one way of thinking about this is that now the space is structured, there are more opportunities for movements than before: it, therefore, is bigger so far as your body is concerned.
On top of this, we don’t experience spaces devoid of their emotional, social and pragmatic contexts. Space isn’t just a container, but a field of action, pregnant with significance: for example, people can tell almost as much about your personality by looking at picture of your office or bedroom than they can from meeting you personally.
A carpenter’s studio invites a totally different set of actions than a kitchen and feels correspondingly different- even if laid out much the same. Changing the colour of the walls of a room can make it feel more spacious, warmer, more formal, more calming.
So we see from all of these examples that our experience of space is highly embodied, contextual, and subject to all manner of emotional layerings. This gives us a clear set of tools for how to change our experience of time in a restricted space: by manipulating our patterns of behaviour, emotion and perception.
With this analysis in our back pocket, let’s look at five strategies that can be deployed against the problem of expanding subjective time in the lockdown, which collectively add up to turning your home into a kind of memory palace.
The three-step technique
Divide your home into a set of distinct locations, with activities for each
Your home is your new city. Let’s kit it out accordingly.
Of course, we need to work with the tools at our disposal: which will seem meagre to begin with, but all of which we will see can be applied to an arbitrarily small space.
First, choose ten activities you want to accommodate in your lockdown
Ten activities is a good basic repertoire. I do in my life: sleep, yoga, reading, washing, working, writing (managerial), work (creative), exercising, partying, eating/socialising.
Your repertoire will, of course, be different depending on what you like doing, and need to do. It’s actually quite fun to reflect on your life and make a list of ten best-version-of-you core activities. Not a bad moment to dig out that list of unactioned new year’s resolutions: that habit of a daily workout? Now’s a good time to actually begin doing it.
Another way of finding your ten activities, is simply to think “what are the activities I’d love to be able to do somewhere else, but I can’t”?
Whichever way you create your list, it shouldn’t take more than a few minutes of honest, joyful self-reflection.
Next, find ten locations around your home to which to assign these activities
Reminder: to be calm during the storm, we want to have clear, differentiated spaces in which we can conduct the activities of our new life in a way that we are “insulated” from distraction, and in such a way as to foster calm, creativity and joy.
So the next step is to select ten distinct locations within the overall space of your home, to which you’ll uniquely assign these actvities.
For me, I had to choose ten locations across the four available rooms to me: bedroom, bathroom, living room, kitchen. If you have more space than this, be expansive. If you have less, zoom in.
You really can do all this in quite small spaces. The only constraint here is to ensure these locations are each at least a metre or so apart from each other. I think it would be just about possible with a bit of creativity to do this in the smallest flat I ever lived in, a 3x3m garret in Paris in my early twenties.
Not having much space to play with is actually part of the fun. I’m grateful I don’t live ibn a castle: it would remove the opportunity for creativity.
To illustrate, I have had to set up four different locations in my sitting-room, for example, and three in my bedroom. Neither room is especially large. One important trick when you are creating several locations in a small room, is to ensure that when you’re in those spaces, that you’re pointing in different directions: out of sight is out of mind, and this will help them differentiate the locations later and make them feel “insulated” from each other. In this way, in that old cell-like flat in Paris, I’d have arranged the spaces “looking outwards” roughly in the four corners, and against the four walls, with a space in the middle to get to ten.
Assign activities to locations
After you’ve chosen ten locations, link the activities to them uniquely. I have several types of work requiring a desk, and so I have set up three tables in my living room and I move tables to do different kinds of work.
So, zooming in on my livingroom, we have three desks, pointed in different directions, for different kinds of work. The Eastern desk (in front of the window) is for working on managerial tasks at Memrise -a diversity of tasks. The Southern-facing one (less than 2 metres away) is also for working on Memrise, but this is for creative work- which I especially enjoy, but which can be difficult to find intellectual and emotional space for in the course of a busy day. The third desk (facing West) is for writing. This way, I’ve created differentiation between these kinds of work.
My full list of locations and activities is then this:
- Bedroom: Bed (sleep)
- Bedroom: floor by bed (yoga)
- Bedroom: Rocking chair by window (reading)
- Bathroom (washing)
- Sitting room: East wall (working)
- Sitting room North wall (working)
- Sitting room West wall (writing)
- Sitting room: space in middle (exercising)
- Kitchen (eating)
- Bar counter between kitchen and living room (partying)
Now’s the moment then to get
2. Imaginatively amplify the distinctiveness of these spaces
We now have different locations for different activities. The next step is to amplify. their felt differentiation using our imaginations, and a few props.
Remember, space is a space by dint of the full gamut of the perceptual and emotional experience that is taking place within it. So we can change space by manipulating the experiences
Our key levers here are:
- The activity itself
- Props (photos, hats, lamps)
- Aromas (candles, food)
- Simple imagination.
To see how we can leverage these easily controlled inputs to create differentiation, let’s look at some examples.
I’ve kitted out my bathroom as a Hammam (by adding a chair, a kettle, and some imagination). Where before, I’d be in and out in five minutes, I now hang out there for 30 minutes with my (imaginary) friends, the room steamed up by running a lidless kettle into the corner and letting it boil.
Sitting room (4 locations)
In my sitting room, I’ve set up, as we saw, four locations: three separate desks and exercise space.
To stop them interfering with each other (i.e. feeling like the same space), I ensure with music, props and lighting that each has an entirely different feel and vibe to the others: to go along with the different patterns of activity and so on.
So when I’m at the East Desk (reserved for Memrise managerial work) I have a fully differentiated multi-sensory set-up that changes the character of the whole room, and effectively makes the location I’m at feel like a totally different space.
Specifically, when sat this desk, I keep all the curtains drawn, play Balkan music whenever I’m say there and imagine I’m in Croatia. On my desk, I keep a photo of Novak Djokovic and hanging on the nearby cupboard is a traditional Croatian dress. All of these things in combination give the location the feel of a totally different room.
If I then move to the North desk (which takes me ten minutes, as we’ll see later) I open the curtains, change the music to jaunty Italian Tarantella, and enjoy a spacious paper-only desk environment. On the wall in front of me is a view of the Italian town of Cividale that I once ineptly painted. No matter, I imagine it as a window and I’m in Italy, doing wonderful free creative tasks. Again, it feels like I’m not only in a different room but in a totally different country.
The West desk is for writing: things like this blogpost, love letters to my girlfriend (currently quarantined in Burgundy, France), and other purely verbal activities. The wall in front of me is covered in bookshelves. Since this is a space of pure ideas, and we’ve already established it’s in effect possible with these techniques to change country, I take it a bit further here and imagine I’m entering into a beyond-worldly magic space of pure imnagination. The music genre here is jazz, and since I tend to sit here at night, the lighting’s also naturally different. My props here include my computer, but I keep the internet off to aid the sense of isolation.
I visit the kitchen three times in the day, but I make sure that each feels like a different experience.
My kitchen in the morning is a French Café. I drink coffee while listening to French radio. I eat a croissant. I talk to myself in French. I complain about the government. No mobile phones are allowed.
It’s all very different in Berlin (lunchtime). Here I’m in Kreuzberg, surrounded by hipsters. I’m listening to Wagner. I’m talking to myself in German. I’m actually not listening to Wagner, I’m playing café sounds to give me a sense of being in an energetic social spot.
In the evening, there isn’t a specific nationality to the kitchen: it’s more of a guest spot for different cultures depending on what I’m cooking. Devices are actually allowed in the kitchen in the evening (as I like to dine over Zoom with a friend and a bottle of wine).
But all in all, the kitchen manages to be three spaces only through changing up the food, the attitude, the music, the props.
My favourite location is the rocking-chair by the bedroom window. I’d picked this up off the street years ago and it had sat there broken and never-sat-upon as a vague never-quite-prioritized to-do item.
Self-isolation and duct tape dealt with that, and now I can read before bed while calming myself down after the energetic day by rocking myself back and forth. An aromatic candle further changes the mood, and my bedroom is now a no-device zone so if there’s a disaster I won’t get to know about it till tomorrow morning.
You won’t land on a set-up this elaborate overnight. You can gradually experiment and find what feels right in terms of props, music, rules, lighting, and activities in each location around your home.
But the basic principle is very simple: by behaving in thought, imagination and action as if each location is an entirely different space/room/country, you make it feel so.
And this does a massive amount to free us from the sense of claustrophobia and time-disappearance that living all day in one place can occasion.
3) Design your preferred daily adventure, then perform it.
Our next step is to build a schedule for our days that travels through our newly invented repertoire of spaces: which may now exist in many different countries, yay!
Designing your daily journey
But schedules suck. They constrain and control, and we don’t want too much of that. So the way we’re going to organise our day’s activities is to transform our schedule into more of an adventurous travel-journey. Doing so is pretty simple: we just need to decide on our itinerary.
To do this, simply pick a path through your new city-home that fits with what you need to do across the day. Writing it down helps. This is your daily journey in the new imagination-built city in your home. Hopefully, we manage through this tool to construct a daily routine as exciting as any that ordinary life could offer.
Performing your daily journey
We have all the pieces in place, now we just need to begin performing them.
A few tips follow as to how to do that in the most effective way possible.
Stick to your itinerary
Itineraries work best when you stick to them, so keep a softly sounded alarm of some kind to let you know when it’s time to move on. Pomodoro is a good tool for this.
Consider changes in costume between activities
Often in normal life, we habitually change clothing for the different activities in our day: with different outfits for work, gym, socialising etc.
It’s good to reproduce these habits in our new city-home. Even small changes do good work to make different moments feel different: the addition of a hat, putting on a jumper, changing our shoes. And they take hardly any time to implement.
Use physical activity to amplify transitions between spaces
A dominant feature of our experience of spaces, and of times, is landmarks and moments of significant transition. This is why rituals are so important to creating experiential space: they act as tools to amplify transitions in our moods.
To boost differentiation between moments in our day, getting moving acts a ‘reset’: there’s nothing like it to freshen yourself physically and emotionally. My current favourite mode of doing this is dancing socially for five minutes: by powering up Zoom and getting on a virtual dance party. But press-ups stretches or even jumping jacks equally get the job done.
My advice is to aim for one of these approximately hourly and to deploy them even if you’re not changing location.
Consider adding a “travel-time” layer
This one is for the advanced practitioner.
Let’s return to our core inspiration: the city. The nature of a city is that it takes time to get between places, which enriches the overall experience and introduces breaks and stimulation between activities. To solve the problem of an absence of the experience of travel-time and the consequent reduction in felt spaciousness, we have to add these back in with a bit of embodied, performative imagination.
The baller options here is to magnify the scale of your flat by simply forbidding yourself from moving at a normal speed between rooms. After extensive experimentation, I’ve found that an allowed pace of 1-2cm/second works well for moving between spaces (this only applies to changing locations, by the way, you’re going to need to move around at your desk at normal speed). But I wouldn’t recommend this on day one, you won’t have the discipline yet.
Whether you choose a physical activity or slowed movements, in time these embodied practices begin to make the whole flat seem much larger. Space is, after all, relational. And there are in fact numerous additional benefits to this approach. You realize, for example, that there’s a ten-minute walk or ten press-ups between you and the fridge (even though it’s just 6m away), and so you begin to find it much less tempting to grab a snack mid-task.
An example schedule
Here’s an example of what a schedule can look like, once you’ve divided your home into ten locations for unique activities, and ‘gamified’ the transitions between the spaces.
- 6-6.15 a.m. Wake up, travel to Hammam
- 6.15 -7 a.m. Wash, hang out in the Hammam, dress
- 7-7.30 a.m Commute to Paris (kitchen), while listening to a podcast
- 7.30- 8 a.m Enjoy Parisian breakfast, coffee, French radio.
- 8-8.15 a.m. Commute to Croatia (East desk)
- 8.15-12.30 a.m: Croatia. Management work / meetings on Memrise. Occasional breaks to dance between tasks.
- 12.30-1 p.m. Freshen mind with 30 min stroll through the Park (central living room) on way to Berlin.
- 1 p.m- 1.45 Lunch: Berlin lunch.
- 1.45- 2 p.m. Commute to Italy while calling family members.
- 2-4 p.m. North desk: creative Memrise work in Italy listening to Tarantella
- 4-4.15p.m Jog to Croatia (through park)
- 4.15-6.45 p.m More Memrise management work in Croatia (East desk)
- Travel to Ukraine (kitchen, last night)
- 7 p.m. Cooking and dinner with friend over Zoom
- 8- 8.15 p.m Travel by bicycle to the West desk (realm of pure ideas)
- 8.15p.m- 10.15 p.m. West Desk writing in pure realm of ideas.
- 10.15p.m.10.30 p.m. Walk home to bedroom.
- 10.30-midnight: Rocking chair reading until sleep.
If suitably enacted, each of the events in this schedule will be insulated emotionally and mentally from the others and will lead to gloriously pure and focused consciousness, as well as a very clear recollection of the events once they’re completed.
To sum it all up
Time in the lockdown can slip away from us, and disturb our mental tranquility. Being locked up inside our homes can be claustrophobic, stressful, boring and uncreative. This simple methodology will allow you to free yourself from these issues.
By combining perceptual, bodily and imaginative techniques, the featureless open scape of a day at home can assume all the spatial trappings of an adventure out around a city, with all the benefits of fun, memorability and distinctiveness, but none of the incidental opportunities for contracting COVID-19.
When you get this method spinning, you’ll feel calmer. You’ll feel like you have more time in the day. You’ll be able to concentrate with a greater purity of focus. You’ll be able to do more different things throughout the day. And you’ll have a tonne of fun while you’re doing them, which is something we all need a bit of in our lives right now.
Finally, with luck, you may find that the core principles underlying this technique will serve you well even when you’re back to living out in the world again. I’m certainly intending on keeping the bedroom as a no-device zone, and on keeping the Hammam too: if nothing else, this lockdown has taught me that I have been under-using my bathroom like a muppet.