How to Have Space Correctly

[NOTE: This post has undergone substantial revisions following feedback in the comments section of the blog LessWrong, where it was originally posted.  The basic complaint was that it was too airy and light on concrete examples and recommendations.  So I’ve said oops, applied the virtue of narrownessgotten specific, and hopefully made this what it should’ve been the first time.]  

Take a moment and picture a master surgeon about to begin an operation.  Visualize the room (white, bright overhead lights), his clothes (green scrubs, white mask and gloves), the patient, under anesthesia and awaiting the first incision. There are several other people, maybe three or four, strategically placed and preparing for the task ahead.  Visualize his tools – it’s okay if you don’t actually know what tools a surgeon uses, but imagine how they might be arranged.  Do you picture them in a giant heap which the surgeon must dig through every time he wants something, or would they be arranged neatly (possibly in the order they’ll be used) and where they can be identified instantly by sight?  Visualize their working area.  Would it be conducive to have random machines and equipment all over the place, or would every single item within arms reach be put there on purpose because it is relevant, with nothing left over to distract the team from their job for even a moment?

Space is important.  You are a spatially extended being interacting with spatially extended objects which can and must be arranged spatially.  In the same way it may not have occurred to you that there is a correct way to have things, it may not have occurred to you that space is something you can use poorly or well.  The stakes aren’t always as high as they are for a surgeon, and I’m sure there are plenty of productive people who don’t do a single one of the things I’m going to talk about.  But there are also skinny people who eat lots of cheesecake, and that doesn’t mean cheesecake is good for you.  Improving how you use the scarce resource of space can reduce task completion time, help in getting organized, make you less error-prone and forgetful, and free up some internal computational resources, among other things.

What Does Using Space Well Mean?

It means consciously manipulating the arrangement, visibility, prominence, etc. of objects in your environment to change how they affect cognition (yours or other people’s).  The Intelligent Use of Space (Kirsch, “The Intelligent Use of Space”, 1995) is a great place to start if you’re skeptical that there is anything here worth considering.  It’s my primary source for this post because it is thorough but not overly technical, contains lots of clear examples, and many of the related papers I read were about deeper theoretical issues.

The abstract of the paper reads:

How we manage the spatial arrangement of items around us is not an afterthought: it is an integral part of the way we think, plan, and behave. The proposed classification has three main categories: spatial arrangements that simplify choice; spatial arrangements that simplify perception; and spatial dynamics that simplify internal computation. The data for such a classification is drawn from videos of cooking, assembly and packing, everyday observations in supermarkets, workshops and playrooms, and experimental studies of subjects playing Tetris, the computer game. This study, therefore, focuses on interactive processes in the medium and short term: on how agents set up their workplace for particular tasks, and how they continuously manage that workplace.

The ‘three main categories’ of simplifying choice, perception, and internal computation can be further subdivided:

simplifying choice

  •       reducing or emphasizing options.
  •       creating the potential for useful new choices.

simplifying perception

  •       clustering like objects.
  •       marking an object.
  •       enhancing perceptual ability.

simplfying internal computation

  •      doing more outside of your head.

These sub-categories are easier to picture and thus more useful when trying to apply the concept of using space correctly, and I’ve provided more illustrations below. It’s worth pointing out that (Kirsch, “The Intelligent Use of Space”, 1995) only considered the behavior of experts.  Perhaps effective space management partially explains expert’s ability to do more of their processing offline and without much conscious planning.  An obvious follow up would be in examining how novices utilize space and looking for discrepancies.

What Does Using Space Well Look Like?

The paper walks the reader through a variety of examples of good utilization of space.  Consider an expert cook going through the process of making a salad with many different ingredients, and ask how you would accomplish the same task differently:

…one subject we videotaped, cut each vegetable into thin slices and laid them out in tidy rows. There was a row of tomatoes, of mushrooms, and of red peppers, each of different length…To understand why lining up the ingredients in well ordered, neatly separated rows is clever, requires understanding a fact about human psychophysics: estimation of length is easier and more reliable than estimation of area or volume. By using length to encode number she created a cue or signal in the world which she could accurately track. Laying out slices in lines allows more precise judgment of the property relative number remaining than clustering the slices into groups, or piling them up into heaps. Hence because of the way the human perceptual system works, lining up the slices creates an observable property that facilitates execution.

Here, the cook used clustering and clever arrangement to make better use of her eyes and to reduce the load on her working memory, techniques I use myself in my day job.  As of this writing (2013) I’m teaching English in Korea.  I have a desk, a bunch of books, pencils, erasers, the works.  All the folders are together, the books are separated by level, and all ungraded homework is kept in its own place.  At the start of the work day I take out all the books and folders I’ll need for that day and arrange them in the same order as my classes. When I get done with a class the book goes back on the day’s pile but rotated 90 degrees so that I can tell it’s been used. When I’m totally done with a book and I’ve entered homework scores and such, it goes back in the main book stack where all my books are.  I can tell at a glance which classes I’ve had, which ones I’ll have, what order I’m in, which classes are finished but unprocessed, and which ones are finished and processed.  Cthulu only knows how much time I save and how many errors I prevent all by utilizing space well.

These examples show how space can help you keep track of temporal order and make quick, accurate estimates, but it may not be clear how space can simplify choice.  Recall that simplifying choice usually breaks down into either taking some choices away or making good choices more obvious.  Taking choices away may sound like a bad thing, but each choice requires you to spend time evaluating options, and if you are juggling many different tasks the chance of making the wrong choice goes up.  Similarly, looking for good options soaks up time, unless you can find a way to make yourself trip over them.

An example of removing bad decisions is in factory workers placing a rag on hot pipes so they know not to touch them (Kirsch, “The Intelligent Use of Space”, 1995).  By symbolically marking a dangerous object the engineers are shutting down the class of actions which involves touching the pipe. It is all too easy in the course of juggling multiple aspects of a task to forget something like this and injure yourself.  The strategically placed and obvious visual marker means that the environment keeps track of the danger for you.  Likewise poisonous substances have clear warning labels and are kept away from anything you might eat; both precautions count as good use of space.

And here is how some carpenters structure their work space so that they can make good uses for odds and ends easier to see:

 In the course of making a piece of furniture one periodically tidies up. But not completely. Small pieces of wood are pushed into a corner or left about; tools, screw drivers and mallets are kept nearby. The reason most often reported is that ‘they come in handy’. Scraps of wood can serve to protect surfaces from marring when clamped, hammered or put under pressure. They can elevate a piece when being lacquered to prevent sticking. The list goes on.

My copy of Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From is on another continent, but the carpenter example reminded me of his recommendation to keep messy notebooks.  Doing so makes it more likely you’ll see unusual and interesting connections between things you’re thinking about.  He goes so far as to use a tool called DevonThink which speeds this process up for him.

And while I’m at it, this also points to one advantage of having physical books over PDFs.  My books take up space and are easier to see than their equivalent 1’s and 0’s on a hard drive, so I’m always reminded of what I have left to read. More than once I’ve gone on a useful tangent because the book title or cover image caught my attention, and more than one interesting conversation got started when a visitor was looking over my book collection.  Scanning the shelves at a good university library is even better, kind of like 17th-century StumbleUpon, and English-language libraries are something I’ve sorely missed while I’ve been in Asia.

All this usefulness derives from the spatial properties and arrangement of books, and I have no idea how it can be replicated with the Kindle.

Specific Recommendations

You can see from the list of examples I’ve provided that there are a billion ways of incorporating these insights into work, life, and recreation.  By discussing the concept I hope to have drawn your attention to the ways in which space is a resource, and I suspect just doing this is enough to get a lot of people to see how they can improve their use of space.  Here are some more ideas, in no particular order:

-I put my alarm clock far enough away from my bed so that I have to actually get up to     turn it off.  This is so amazingly    effective at ensuring I get up in the morning that I often hate my previous-night’s self.  Most of the time I can’t go back to  sleep even when I try.

-There’s reason to suspect that a few extra monitors or a bigger display will make your life easier  [Thanks Qiaochu_Yuan].

-When doing research for an article like this one, open up all the tabs you’ll need for the project in a separate window and close  each tab as you’re done with it.  You’ll be less distracted by something irrelevant and you won’t have to remember what you did  or didn’t read.  

-Having a separate space to do something seems to greatly increase the chances I’ll get it done.  I tried not going to the gym  for a while and just doing push ups in my house, managing to keep that up for all of a week or so. Recently, I switched gyms,  and despite now having to take a bus all the way across town I make it to the gym 3-5 times a week, pretty much without fail.  If your studying/hacking/meditation isn’t going well, try going somewhere which exists only to give people a  place to do that  thing.

-Put whatever you can’t afford to forget when you leave the house right by the door.

-If something is really distracting you, completely remove it from the environment temporarily.  During one particularly strenuous  finals in college I not only turned off the xbox, I completely unplugged it and put it in a drawer.  Problem. Solved.

-Alternatively, anything you’re wanting to do more of should be out in the open.  Put your guitar stand or chess board or  whatever where you’re going to see it frequently, and you’ll engage with it more often.  This doubles as a signal to other  people, giving you an opportunity to manage their impression of you, learn more about them, and identify those with similar  interests to yours.  

-Make use of complementary strategies (Kirsch, “Complementary Strategies”, 1995).  If you’re having trouble comprehending    something, make a diagram, or write a list.  The linked paper describes a simple pilot study which involved two groups tasked  with counting coins, one which could use their hands and one which could not.  The ‘no hands’ group was more likely to make  errors and to take longer to complete the task.  Granted, this was a pilot study with sample size = 5, and the difference  wasn’t that stark.  But it’s worth thinking about next time you’re stuck on a problem.

-Complementary strategies can also include things you do with your body, which after all is just space you wear with you  everywhere.  Talk out loud to yourself if you’re alone, give a mock presentation in which you summarize a position you’re trying  to understand, keep track of arguments and counterarguments with your fingers.  I’ve always found the combination of  explaining something out loud to an imaginary person while walking or pacing to be especially potent.  Some of my best ideas  come to me while I’m hiking.

-Try some of these embodied cognition hacks.

Summary and Conclusion

Space is a resource which, like all others, can be used effectively or not.  When used effectively, it acts to simplify choices, simplify perception, and simplify internal computation.  I’ve provided many examples of good space usage from all sorts of real-life domains in the hopes that you can apply some of these insights to live and work more effectively.

Further Reading

[In the original post these references contained no links.  Sincere thanks to user Pablo_Stafforini for tracking them down]

Kirsh, D. (1995) The Intelligent Use of Space

Kirsh, D. (1999) Distributed Cognition, Coordination and Environment Design

Kirsh, D. (1998) Adaptive Rooms, Virtual Collaboration, and Cognitive Workflow

Kirsh, D. (1996) Adapting the Environment Instead of Oneself

Kirsh, D. (1995) Complementary Strategies: Why we use our hands when we think

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