I’m sitting at my kitchen table on a crisp Saskatchewan Sunday morning. My teacher wife is grading schoolwork across from me, the picture of productivity. I’m supposed to be writing content for this newsletter, but it doesn’t look like any “bolt of lightning” inspiration will strike anytime soon.
I started with good intentions, logging into my computer and taking a quick glance at the Fast Company home page. Alas, I quickly became swallowed up by an internet wormhole that’s taken me far away from where I’m supposed to be. After reading several reviews of Taylor Swift’s new album (it’s awesome), articles about American politics (it’s bad, really bad), and watching a trailer for a documentary about competitive tickling (huh?), I’m staring at my desktop, contemplating how many ml of coffee you can drink before your heart implodes.
My desktop is an image of the Milky Way (the galaxy, not the famous ice cream shop in Regina), and it’s got me thinking about space. I’m not talking about the satellites, spaceships and comets kind of space – this I know nothing about. I’m talking about physical and mental space. The kind of conditions we need to create to get out of the day-to-day grind, and do exceptional work.
As most people progress through their careers and take on more responsibility, a shift occurs – you become relied upon for the quality of your work, not just the quantity. I’ve been experiencing this shift over the past few years, and it’s been a humbling experience. It’s caused me to question the way I work, and what I can do differently to be more effective.
For me, where I do my work has become key.
The physical space I’m in can have a significant impact on what I’m able to accomplish. For example, if I know I have a series of meetings that I need to be “on” for that day, I’ll work from my office. On these days, there are specific outcomes I want to achieve, and being in my office signals to my brain that I’ll be doing focused work that requires me to think in a very specific way.
However, if I’m working on a project that requires more innovation or creativity, I need to get out of the office. I have a strong belief that when the work you’re doing demands that you think differently, you should immerse yourself in a different environment from where you conduct your day-to-day. For me, these are coffee shops, restaurants and hotel lobbies. The noise, ambience and ability to people watch helps me get out of my own head, and think more outside the box and in the space of possibility.
And I’m not alone. Jack Antonoff, the genius behind the band Bleachers, and producer for Taylor Swift, Lorde, And St. Vincent, recommends you lean in to how you feel in a given workspace. Jack wrote a lot of his earlier music in his bedroom in his parents’ house. When he found himself lacking inspiration, he moved his equipment into his sister’s room, and then his parent’s living room, eventually removing his entire bedroom and taking it on tour with him. Now he’s got a decked out studio at his apartment in New York City, but still finds himself moving his work into the kitchen when he needs a change in environment.
Where you do your best work will vary depending on your personality and the type of work you do, so get out there and find which spaces bring out the best in you. It can make the difference between good and great work. And if you haven’t heard it yet, check out the super catchy “Don’t Take the Money” by Bleachers.
Physical space has a significant impact on innovation and creativity, but I’ve also found that when I’m able to create mental space for myself, it opens up a whole new world of possibilities. Let me explain.
Technology is rewiring your brain.
You’re always just a click away from what you need, or a text or email away from what other
people need from you. Everyone knows you get notifications on your phone, so being available during your every waking hour has become the norm. Unfortunately, it’s not just nurses, firefighters and police officers that are on-call these days – it’s all of us.
Like it or not, needing instant gratification is a side effect of having everything at your fingertips, and it’s likely impacting the way you work. And what better way to get this gratification than through busy work. That is, work that makes you feel like you’re being super productive, but has no actual value. An example of this for me is email – I can easily spend the first couple hours of my day responding to people. It’s mindless work that makes me feel as though I’ve accomplished something, but the actual impact is minimal.
To escape the busy work trap, create mental space.
Creating mental space is about allowing yourself to just be. There’s no end destination, guilt or obligation associated with it. Take the time to find a quiet space and clear your mind, and it will ultimately help you think more clearly and be more effective. For me, these are the times I most frequently have those “lightning bolt” inspiration moments I mentioned earlier. Whether you call it daydreaming, mindfulness, meditation, or reflection, it’s the same thing – you’re creating mental space for yourself. Here are some ways to incorporate this into your day starting tomorrow:
Block your calendar at lunch and go for a walk. Re-energize, get some fresh air, and reflect.
Go screen-free and disconnect from technology, even if you just start with a couple of hours on Sundays.
Schedule your meetings in 45-minute intervals, so you have time to synthesize your thoughts between them.
Schedule mental space right into your day, and it will benefit everything else you do. It might feel like you’re wasting valuable time, but ultimately it may be the most important thing you do in your day.
Practice mindfulness. You don’t have to be a full-blown yogi to experience the benefits, and the Headspace app makes it super easy to get started.
You live in a world that is information-rich and time-poor, but don’t get swept away by the rising tide that is instant gratification and busy work. Invest the time to do absolutely nothing but think and reflect, and you’ll be rewarded with what you’re able to accomplish. Most people agree a mind is a terrible thing to waste, but it’s also a terrible thing to clutter. Create mental space for yourself, and tackle your day with a clear mind.
As for me, I’m off to declutter my mind after the competitive tickling documentary I just finished watching (that’s right, I just couldn’t help myself).
Looking for more information on how you can find space? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org, and let’s grab coffee.