Workspace focus

March 20, 2011

“Nothing is less real than realism … Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.” — Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe lived in the high deserts of Northern New Mexico; the environment served and supported her philosophy. The desert is a place uncluttered, without distraction, a place to think.

We all need this. Where is your desert?

Inspired by what I read a few weeks ago in Leo Babauta’s manifesto on simplicity, entitled Focus, I’ve been slowly eliminating distraction from my own life. A minimalist at heart, I’ve always been drawn to sparse environments. Yet, it has required considerable encouragement and inspiration for me to take the radical measures necessary to simplify in a meaningful way. In the 21st century, clutter has a way of seeping in.

My desk

Above is a photo of my current workspace. One small standing desk. Intentionally too small, in fact, to become a resting place for errant papers or objects. Papers are digitized using the scanner on the right, and then immediately discarded (recycled). A large cinema display sits atop the desk, devoid of icons. The only item on my virtual desktop is a list of the three most important tasks I’ve set out to accomplish for the day. No chair. Standing improves my posture, encourages me to take breaks more frequently, and has proven to be better for my overall health. Very few adornments on the walls. A calendar, some photos from our wedding, a few hard-earned diplomas.

In contrast, my previous workspace included two desks, a chair, racks of electronics components, a desk lamp, geeky trinkets of all sorts (Legos, Rubik’s cube, etc.), a soldering iron, various framed photos, and at least one tenacious stack of papers I could never find time to file away. And many other itinerant objects as well.

Ridding myself of this stuff was both liberating and difficult. Liberating, in that my work environment now encourages me to focus only on what I have deemed most important to me: writing and programming. Difficult, in that I was more attached to that other stuff (and the activities associated with it) than I realized.

Elimination requires practice and courage, but it is one of the most necessary skills of our day. It’s the only way we can focus on what is most meaningful to us. It’s the only way we can become great at what we do. O’Keeffe achieved worldwide renown as an artist because she honed her ability to eliminate the unnecessary to a razor-sharp edge. There is never anything “extra” in her work. There is nothing superfluous. If we, too, are to make our lives a work of art, then we could do worse than to aspire to be like one of O’Keeffe’s paintings.