essays|A List Apart
Consider the desk in your office. Maybe it reminds you of when you opened the box and put the pieces together. Or maybe it recalls your first day at work, when your colleague showed you where you would sit. The desk, the computer on top of it, the chair you sit in, and the space they comprise are all repositories for memory. But these things don’t just store our memories; they store our behaviors too. The sum of these stored behaviors is an object’s habit field, and merely being around it compels our bodies and minds to act in certain ways. By understanding these invisible forces and employing strategies to shape them, we can enjoy more frequent, sustained periods of flow.
How Memory Works: A Brief Overview
We often talk about our memories as if they were kept in the brain as concrete, indexed things. Yet, if the brain were a town, each memory wouldn’t be a house with its own address; instead, a memory would be more like the moment in which a certain combination of houses all had their porch lights on. Memories are associations, and the same houses – neurons – store and process those associations.1
Because of this unique architecture, our memories are interconnected. When we talk about “storing” memories in objects, we’re creating new sets of associations that, once established, will seem more familiar to us later on. As you turn your attention toward your memory of the desk, you’re surfacing a web of familiar associations, like pulling on the exposed roots of a tree.
The memories of assembling the desk and your first day of work are a type of memory called declarative memory, which refers to things that you can explicitly evoke – like facts, events, and stories. On the other hand, learned behaviors, such as playing the piano or riding a bike, are a form of implicit memory called procedural memory or memory of how to do things – commonly referred to as “muscle memory.”
We constantly embed memories into objects and contexts without realizing it. However, we also consciously offload our declarative memories into objects: We purchase souvenirs, hold on to a loved one’s old sweater and take photos at significant events. If that works, and if our behaviors are merely a different kind of memory, then why not try to offload some of those too?
Here’s how I like to think about it: Every object emits a habit field. When we sit down at the desk in our office to work, we shape its habit field into a productive one. When we sit down in a lounge chair to watch our favorite TV program, we nudge the chair’s habit field toward relaxation and consumption. The more we repeat the same activity around an object, the stronger its habit field gets. And the stronger its habit field gets, the easier it is for us to effortlessly fall into that mode of behavior the next time we’re around the object.
Every object comes with a habit field baked in. Often, this stems from the physical nature of the object and our past experiences with similar objects. Don Norman calls these affordances. Typewriters afford writing. Watercolors afford painting. Books afford reading. Because there’s a physical limitation to what we can do with these objects, their habit fields come pre-defined and don’t change easily.
Fuzzy Habit Fields
Some objects come with more ambiguous habit fields. A simple table, for instance, can be used as a surface for dining, writing, or reading. Yet, throughout human history, these “fuzzy” objects have mostly been secondary to the main activity – when you interacted with the table, you were interacting with the food on the table. The multifunctional objects in our lives tended to stay in the background; that is, until the personal computer came along.
Let’s go back to your office desk. Say for example, every time you sat down in front of it, instead of doing your work, you checked e-mail, clicked on Twitter links and played Facebook games. Even if you have the most powerful processor, work-ready desk, and posture-supporting task chair, these items will absorb your behaviors and over time, their habit fields will shift in an unproductive direction.
Thanks to the computer’s ability to multitask, sometimes these habit fields actually become oriented around the act of switching programs! If you’re conditioned to alternate between different modes of working every few seconds, it’s no wonder you have a tough time staying focused on one thing.
Our tools are becoming both more capable and less physical – the iPad is one great example. Lacking a tactile keyboard and mouse, the tablet has a habit field even fuzzier than that of a laptop. The portability of the pad opens it to more contexts too, meaning that our interactions with the device have the potential to affect, for better or worse, the habit fields of the objects we use near them.
Reshaping Habit Fields
The good news is that memories, and consequently habit fields, are surprisingly malleable.2 If we pay attention to the ways we’re constantly influencing our surrounding habit fields, we can change them for the better. Imagine a habit field around your office desk so potent, that every time you sit down, you become enveloped in a haze of flow-sustaining productivity. It may sound like hyperbole, but with the proper conditioning, it’s entirely possible.
Habit Field Pulse-Check
Think about how certain objects or spaces in your life are already oriented around particular behaviors. If you work from a laptop, do you find yourself gravitating toward specific places based on what you’re doing? If you have a computer in your home office and another one in your den, how do you use each of them differently?
Look for natural splits between work and leisure activities, or between creating and consuming things. If you already keep these activities separate, then you might only need to make a few adjustments. If you’ve been trying to do everything from one place and one device, then you may need to make a conscious decision to divide different modes of behavior.
First, define how you want to split your activities across various tools or spaces, and then commit to keeping activities separate to fortify respective habit fields. Every time you sit down, try to ask yourself, “How are my actions going to affect the habit fields of the objects around me?”
The Distraction Chair
I do most of my work from home, and in my apartment I have a comfortable chair reserved for e-mail, checking status updates, and leisurely surfing the web. I call it my “distraction chair.” I try to reserve my work desk for actual work – writing, designing, and coding – and when I feel the inclination to read Twitter or check e-mail, I move to the lounge chair. Before I had an iPad, I unplugged my laptop and moved to the chair, and it worked just as well.
At first, it may seem like a nuisance to get up and move every time, but that’s exactly the point. As long as you adhere to the rules you’ve created for yourself, over time you’ll find that the strength of the habit fields keep you in place – the act of getting up, walking over, and getting situated in the chair becomes just tedious enough to keep you at the desk, leading to prolonged work periods.
Likewise, the lounge chair’s habit field turns into a “leisure zone” – one that I know to stay away from if I have a deadline and need to focus. Sometimes when I realize I’ve been spending too much time in the chair, it’s easier to snap out of it: all I have to do is stand up and leave the zone.
Barriers to Access
Another way to condition the device’s habit field is to limit what its software is capable of. By hindering access to certain applications, you make it tougher to, on a whim, stray from what you’re supposed to be doing.
One thing you can do is delete the shortcuts to distracting programs. Remove them from your dock or desktop. Even when you do have to use them, shut them down immediately after you’re done instead of leaving them open. You can also edit your HOSTS file to prevent access to certain websites.
You may want to uninstall these same programs. I removed the Tweetie Twitter client from my Mac because it worked too well – it allowed me to read my Twitter stream with a simple keyboard shortcut, which I would habitually press without realizing it. Now, when I need to, I just access Twitter from my iPad. Just because you can have instant access at your fingertips doesn’t mean you should. By increasing the effort it takes to get to undesirable applications, you diminish the temptation for your subconscious mind to go for the quick reward.
TXTBlocker is a new cell phone add-on that uses GPS technology to disable texting while driving. The marketing copy on their website also promotes the ability to “set up ‘Safe Zones’ to disable or limit functions like texting in schools or around workplaces.” Projecting into the near future, we can anticipate a wave of new devices that can sense nearby objects and disable functionality depending on the context. The irony is not lost here – it seems like the solution to making our multitasking devices more effective is to turn them into unitaskers in roundabout ways.
There’s a good reason for this: The more capable and multipurpose our tools become, the more the burden of deciding what they do shifts on us. Physical constraints must be replaced by artificial ones, and the effectiveness of our tools becomes an extension of our own willpower and self-discipline. Without these constraints, our devices essentially become amorphous blobs that aren’t really great at getting anything done.
We’re All Superheroes
We have the power to bestow our abilities onto the things around us. By being conscious of our tools, habits, and spaces, and actively conditioning them to help us behave the way we want to behave, maybe we can more efficiently tap into the thousands of hours of creative genius embedded in our everyday objects. Maybe we’ll be able to maximize the capabilities that new technologies afford us without being overwhelmed by the distractions. And, just maybe, we’ll remember what it feels like to be utterly engrossed in our daily work.
Like any analogy, this one only goes so far. Memory is a complex, messy thing that we’re constantly learning new things about. For those interested in diving deeper, this Radiolab episode on Memory and Forgetting is an excellent starting point. ↩