Time, Space, and Anchors to Priorities

The other day, I had this idea of how a living space can function as a vessel or reflection of one’s life’s priorities. Living space is like time in one’s life: not easily extendable. If your house is 2000 sqft, it’s up to you to make the most out of every square inch. Akin to space, time is also limited. You can change your lifestyle to make more time to do things you like or live healthier to extend your life, but at the end of the day, a human can only live so long. One can argue that for the 1%, space can be traded with money. I’d think that more space is a diminishing return. You cannot be simultaneously doing multiple things in multiple rooms. Effective use of space is constrained by the number of hours in the day. Space needs to be budgeted and designed like time.

Consequentially, the spaces you dedicate to activities reflect the most important things in your life: a bedroom where you unwind and spend time with your significant other; a living room for gatherings; a dining room for family conversations; a home office to your burgeoning career. Your storage room or garage is no exception: snowboards, cars, treadmills. Very few human activities in the modern day don’t require some material stuff.

This inflexibility of space serves as a good reminder for the numbered days in our lives.

Let’s say you decide to have a kid. You need to decide which room to remodel when the kid grows old enough. Are you going to trade your office room for it? What about half of the backyard for a new extension at the cost of your garden? These choices reflect your time allocation. You can’t raise a child and keep putting in the same amount of time into everything you’ve been doing up until now. Your priorities in life have to be reshuffled and some de-prioritized or dropped.

There’s an adage that I live by: “you shape your environment and the environment then shapes you.“ What if we started using space as an agent of change?

I’m tempted to get too pedantic about the specific examples where this analogy doesn’t really work. So let’s not go there. Instead, let’s imagine that one consciously uses the fixed amount of space to reflect the time allocation of their life. It’s an intriguing and intentional exercise. A lot of people, myself included, don’t often spend time on things they’d like to. This misalignment of priorities can be the result of distraction or other obligations and is a source of anxiety and unfulfilling emotions. Sometimes you tally up where your time goes and realize that a third of your free times was sucked into Youtube and Netflix. Analogously, should one-third of your apartment also be a dedicated YouTube/Netflix space?

Dedicated space for activities is much underrated nowadays. Digitization extracts many activities from its material couplings into a purely intellectual exercise. Sending letters, reading a book, participating in a debate, making art, directing a show. All of them can be done on one computer in one place. The convenience comes at a cost: our memory associations with physical space as a cue to neural activation no longer exists. A while ago I wrote an essay on the differences between digital and analog counterparts, and one of the interesting things I learned was the brain’s innate talent for spatial mapping—critical to navigating the savanna. We know from classical conditioning that for example, if you always listen to a particular album during study sessions, playing that album again will prime your mind into focus more. The same conditioning could also be done with a lamp, a room, a desk, or a candy with a specific flavor. Social scientist Adam Galinsky at Columbia University has found that even dating someone from a different cultural background can make you more creative and open-minded. Maybe in the process of building a deep connection with that person, your brain consciously embraces new ideas and builds new neural pathways. And when that mode is activated in another context, you’re more creative as a result.

When I think about all of those ideas, perhaps the space-time symmetry in one’s priorities in life might offer some important lifestyle value. Admittedly, this problem applies to knowledge workers more so than people working mostly with their hands and with tools. If Joe wants to read more in his life but always find himself drifting to reddit or online games, perhaps he should stop buying ebooks and find a corner in his dining room and furnish it as a dedicated reading space with nothing else to distract him. The friction to start reading drops and the inertia to stay reading becomes much higher when the dedicated space achieves symmetry with the dedicated time you want to put in.

However, not all space is created equal either. If you spend 80% of the time in your bedroom, building a large home library is unlikely an effective change catalyst. Building a small shelf of books next to your bed or removing the TV or computer from your bedroom might work better. If we plot how much time we spend in a house or apartment as a heat map, we can say that to achieve space-time symmetry of priorities, we should aim for as proportional of a distribution as possible and avoid “hot spots.” That, of course, doesn’t apply to sleep or other inactive time.

If our brains are wired to respond to our three-dimensional space and so much of our free will is dictated by the subtle cues of our environment, why not shape our environment as a tool to shape ourselves?

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