How to Have Space Correctly

by fowlertm7 min read25th Jun 201332 comments


Life ImprovementsPractical
Personal Blog

[NOTE: This post has undergone substantial revisions following feedback in the comments section.  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 narrowness, gotten 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 (Kirsh, "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 (Kirsh, "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: 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 (Kirsh, "The Intelligent Use of Space", 1995).  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.

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.

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 (Kirsh, "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



32 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 8:28 PM
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I noticed one substantial change to my workflow when I got a new laptop with a wider screen than my old laptop. The new screen is wide enough that I can now easily look at two windows at the same time, one on the left and one on the right (and I could also drag windows to the side and they would resize appropriately). This ended up being more useful than I had anticipated; for example, I can now read a .pdf and edit a .tex file at the same time, or open up Workflowy twice and look at one part of my Workflowy while editing another. Programmers value having multiple monitors for similar reasons (see e.g. here). In some sense it increases your external working memory.

Edit: Something I was trying to say implicitly that I might as well say explicitly: consider your computer desktop part of your space too. If you're anything like me, you pay much more attention to it than to your actual desktop.

Included, with credit. Thank you.

I hope I'm not going too far off topic, but are there any ideas what an audio equivalent might be? I get the impression that audio is much more serial than video (one reason the apathy toward braille among a decent chunk of blind techies astounds me; adding extra speakers does not seem to be as effective as a bigger screen is for visually-oriented work. To be fair, though, braille technology is currently woefully inefficient.)

Audio is much more serial than visual.

Very tentatively offered-- is there any way to improve how you keep track of the various audio items you're using?

Interesting, but I was a bit disappointed by this post.

By the title, it seemed like you were about to give a series of specific recommendation, backed by studies of showing this type of arrangements made people happier/more productive. But, that section was only a paragraph long, and didn't suggest anything other than thinking ahead before you do things.

Understood. To my knowledge there really isn't that much research on this topic, period. As I noted, I thought about going into considerably more depth, but at the time I felt that the result would have a poor tedium-to-value ratio. I felt like most of what I wanted to accomplish I could do by simply pointing out the issue and giving a few examples.

Perhaps I was wrong about that.

You were indeed wrong; specific concrete study results and advice are much more valuable than pointing things out and setting things up. Begin in medias res, open with the concrete example before doing any abstract discussion, and prioritize study results over general discussion. I'd actually suggest retracting or Discussing this post until you can include the concrete results.

Thanks for letting me know. I was in a weird, restless mood yesterday and just rushed through it, I guess. The primary source for all of this actually has a lot of concrete examples, but I went with just one or two and a couple of high-level comments. Maybe I can salvage the post by including more direct quotes of concrete analysis and beefing up the 'specific recommendations' section?

"Rewrite" more than "salvage" since I'd also delete a lot of the abstractions, but yes, and meanwhile I'd again recommend retracting the post while working on it (save back in your Drafts folder).

Substantial rewrite, complete. Thanks for advising me rather than downvoting and moving on, I think it's a better piece now.

Maybe just add a section with a few more examples or advice. The post was a quick read for me, I could have handled more.

I upvoted the post and this comment. I suggest bolding everything between spatial and computation as containing the most value per word of this post.

Are the papers you need near at hand?

There were no links to the papers listed in the "Further reading" section. I'm hereby making these more accessible in virtual space:

Nice sleuthing! I had to email the author to get PDFs of these papers which is why I didn't include links. I'll throw these into the original article, with credit to you.

[NOTE: This post has undergone substantial revisions following feedback in the comments section. 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 narrowness, gotten specific, and hopefully made this what it should've been the first time.]

I appreciate the effort, particularly in light of the demotivating affect that is often the result of extensive criticism.

Thank you. It mostly comes down to mindset; I figured eventually I would write or do something that wouldn't be well received, and when it happened I steeled myself to learn from the experience. Plus I wasn't being flamed, commenters were universally helpful.

The rewrite is much better. Thank you.

I'm glad to hear that :)

I love this post.

spatial arrangements that simplify perception

This is why you should make your bed in the morning. Also this is why paragraphs exist. And why math notation isn't linear. And why parentheses look like they're encircling the text. And periods and kerning and oh god I can't stop coming up with examples

I'm an extremely visual thinker, and I think I think about these things all the time. I wonder though, if this stuff is as useful to people who aren't visual thinkers. I've experienced having disagreements with people on what heuristics to use, based on the fact that the other person wasn't a visual thinker.

I also find that this has huge application to my computer usage. For example, I always put my cursor off of text. I always have the line I'm reading at the top of the window. I always strategically place my chat windows in the margins of websites so I can see them while reading the site.

I don't really see what this has to do with making your bed in the morning. It's not like we spend significant chunks of time looking at them.

Your bed doesn't have to be in your field of view to be part of your mental model of the world.

Also, you don't have to spend a large chunk of time looking at something for it to have a large effect. For example, I wouldn't be surprised if having an unmade bed perturbs your morning routine and makes it more likely that you forget your phone / keys / important documents.

Your bed doesn't have to be in your field of view to be part of your mental model of the world.

Noooo, but I can't really think why else it'd be loaded, I don't think everything we know about is loaded into working memory at any one time.

An orderly, efficiently managed environment is the single greatest determinant of quality in experimental biology.

I think the real benefit of space management is best understood in terms of dual systems theory. Using system I all the time is mentally exhausting and, more importantly, unreliable. You need system I for other things, and it will eventually decide you don't need to do the pushups, or fail to retrieve the relevant temperature for your reaction. System II however will do it perfectly, over and over again. But system II is inflexible. So you need to put it on rails, and make your environment highly regular, so that you can do what you're doing by habit alone.

Are you switching the usual meanings of system 1 and system 2 here?

Oops :) Fixed.

In one section, you spelled Kirsh's name Kirsch. Also, it was unexpected to see my professor show up on a Lesswrong post.

Fixed. And I'm glad you said something, I'd forgotten to email Professor Kirsh with a link to this post.

Another idea is to use different browsers for different tasks. For example, Firefox for school, IE for goofing off, and Chrome for extra-curricular projects.

Anyway, time to remove all the books I will likely not want to look at in the near future to make room for useful things like my calendar and vitamins.

When talking to people use hand movements and props from the environment if you can.

I'd recommend looking into some basic stuff one communication styles before doing that, since there seem to be people who find expansive gesturing quite off putting. I think business studies did a bunch of stuff about quick and dirty social reading at some point related - assertive vs reserved, work vs person orriented;that sort of thing.

Is it actually low hanging? I have my doubts.

Rearranging (aka cleaning up) my household environment to compactify various boxes and items requires a rather large cognitive expenditure, and one that is not currently pleaseant, with the exception of occasional yard-work. (which i never do enough of even then).

Maybe I'll organize my desktop (both the one on the monitor and the one next to it). maybe. But when I bother making my bed, it will NOT be primarily because of "perceptual ease" or whatever, but will be about getting a good night's sleep. (This article might be the grain of rice that tips the scale in that particular matter, but that's it).

edit: I reread it....huh. It's not at all what I remember reading before. It looks like there might be some low-hanging fruit just the other side of the tree in question, but for the moment I'm relying on low effort but slow cached-thought decay to clear my cache, so....Shoot me a pm in a week or so, please.