Friday, October 19, 2012

The Offudio Project Begins

I spend a lot of time working, and I like to be in pleasant surrounds when I do. The trouble is that while standard issue office furniture where I work is functional enough to use, it’s still more utilitarian than artsy.

Like most people, I’ll hang posters or art around, hoping to spice up the place, but I often want more than that.

About a decade ago, I consolidated households with the woman who would become my wife. My house was too small for our needs, so I moved into hers, which was slightly larger. That still left us with two households worth of furniture, however. Some of it went into the basement, but it occurred to me at some point to haul some of the superfluous pieces over to my office in order to add a bit of personality and comfort.

The result is a room that’s both pleasant for me and inviting for others. If I want to ask a coworker to sit and chat awhile, it’s nice to be able to offer them a venue that’s not just visually appealing but also capable of leaving them genuinely comfortable and relaxed while we talk.

Of course I’m confident they’d visit anyway for the simple pleasure of engaging my sparkling personality, but somehow I feel like it doesn’t hurt to hedge my bets by giving them other reasons to want to stop by. High tech workplaces can be very fast-paced, so it’s good to keep up-to-date with what’s going on around me. Having an attractive space is one way to improve the odds that I’ll naturally arrange for that. This is how it looks as you’re walking in the door:

At my home there are some of the same issues. We live quite a ways from where I work, so I telecommute a lot. There’s a room off the garage that I’ve converted into an office where I can sequester myself while working, but here the problem isn’t getting others to visit me, it’s just keeping myself from going crazy in a place where I spend so much time.

This house is bigger than the place I had before meeting my wife, but it’s still not huge. Somehow this office ends up accumulating a lot of clutter. There’s an ebb and flow to it, so it’s worse at some times than at others. The photo at left is from one of its more crowded moments, and will give you a sense of what I’m constantly fighting.

More recently, the boxes in the middle of the room have been beaten back, but the room still contains a lot of stuff, much of it stuff that I don’t really use regularly. It just sits there taking up space and I find it to be an occasional visual distraction, but mostly I just don’t find it peaceful. That’s been weighing on me, and I’ve been trying to think of some way to overcome it, transforming this space I’ve been using now for quite a while into a calmer kind of place like I have at work and I’ve had at other places I’ve lived.

Just for reference, the photo at right, which depicts the same office space, was taken just a couple of weeks ago. If you look closely, you can see that while the boxes in the middle of the room are moved, some of them are just tucked under tables and desks, and not really gone. There’s a bit of floor space, but that just exposes an old carpet that isn’t very attractive either.

I push the elements of the room back and forth, but that never really accomplishes anything. The space needs serious work and it has never seemed to come from incremental effort.

Then, just by chance, my long-time friend Stever Robbins, whose insight I value quite a lot, tweeted a pointer to an interesting article, “The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” written by Greg McKeown and published in the Harvard Business Review.

I liked the article for a number of reasons, and I recommend reading it in its entirety. However, this part caught my attention because my office was feeling a lot like the closets he’s talking about:

First, use more extreme criteria. Think of what happens to our closets when we use the broad criteria: “Is there a chance that I will wear this someday in the future?” The closet becomes cluttered with clothes we rarely wear. If we ask, “Do I absolutely love this?” then we will be able to eliminate the clutter and have space for something better. ...

McKeown points through to an article for BBC Future titled “Why we love to hoard... and how you can overcome it,” in which the author, Tom Stafford, speaks about countering something he calls the “endowment effect” and how it contributes to clutter. Stafford offers a suggestion about how to overcome it, which I’ll quote here, but again I recommend the entire article:

... for each item I ask myself a simple question: If I didn’t have this, how much effort would I put in to obtain it? And then more often or not I throw it away, concluding that if I didn’t have it, I wouldn’t want this.

It happened at the same time that another friend was moving from one apartment to another, and we were discussing the inevitable process of boxing everything up in the old space with an eye toward how it would unpack in the new one. Suddenly my mind flashed on the possibility that I could do the same thing even within my own space—that rather than just nudge the office contents back and forth, I could just move completely out of my office and then move back in. During that process, I could heed the advice of McKeown and Stafford, unpacking only those things I absolutely love, and storing or disposing of the rest.

At this point, the plan is a work in progress. I’d like to begin by making the space as close to empty as I can make it. I’ve had such spaces in other places I’ve lived and have found them to be very calming.

The goal will be to take new paths, something that can’t happen merely by rebuilding the structure of the old. “Better implies different,” as Professor Amar Bose would say. So I need to hold the old things and the old ways at bay for a while. I want a space that invites me to be other than I am now, to reinvent myself. For example, art and music aren’t really central to what I am or do now. Maybe they will figure more prominently in the redesign. I don’t yet know.

To properly explore, as McKeown noted, it’s necessary to eliminate the clutter that’s in the way of making something better. So that’s the plan: Clear things out and rebuild somehow. That ratty carpet may become hardwood, or something like that. A lot of the furniture will move to the garage or the basement for now. I want to open the room up—and, by extension, myself.

To help me visualize where I’m going, I changed the background on my computer to a photo of a house I used to live in, the one the extra furniture in my office came from. I had done a lot to invent a new space there, and then had to give it up. Perhaps I’ll write that story in detail one day, but for now the main point is that it was a pleasant, airy space that I was sad to give up. It offered a mood I’m trying to reclaim here. Here’s a little peek into that space:

And, finally, my wife made a really cool suggestion that’s become central to the plan. If I really want it to be something else, she suggested, why not stop calling it my “office”? Why not call it something else—a “studio”? I really liked that idea and adopted it immediately, though I admit I haven’t quite retrained myself. Sometimes I still call it the office. She’ll hear me do that and regularly call me on it, and I’ll defend myself with some lame excuse about how the transition isn’t done, so it’s OK for me to still use the old word. I’ll get better at it with practice.

But we came up with a name for that, too, actually. Sometimes we just call it the “offudio”—a messy point in the transition, neither here nor there. It’s on track to become a studio at some point soon.

It took forever to empty the file cabinets, the bookcases, etc. and box everything up. I couldn’t believe how much stuff one could pack into a 10'x13' room. All that’s left now are some boxes, my computer, and the things on my desk, so I can continue to work, and to write the occasional blog.

Even now, with things boxed up for moving, there’s considerably more space and more order, so it feels already like an improvement. But stay tuned. I’ll report back when the final stage of the transition from offudio to first-class studio is done.

Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

The second part of this two-part series is here:
The Offudio Project Concludes

Originally published October 19, 2012 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): renovation, lifestyle, philosophy, art, change of pace, home, office, home office, office, studio, offudio, change, terminology, redecorating, interior design, transition

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