This post was originally published on my LinkedIn page
Churchill once said that “we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” This is true of many things. We shape our technologies and afterwards they shape us. We shape our habits and afterwards they shape us.
But when the time comes for transformation — digital, personal or otherwise — how can we break free from outdated practices and truly re-imagine our ways of working, rather than just tweak the status quo?
True to Churchill, one simple answer recently presented itself by way of a building: my own house. My eldest son had recently left for university, leaving behind a drum kit that hadn’t been used for years and took over the entire spare room. So my wife and I decided to sell it and clear out the room.
The spare room was now completely empty.
We were literally staring at emptiness in every sense of the word. A natural response would have been to quickly fill the room with something else, just to fill the void.
At first, we thought of turning it into a guest bedroom — until we remembered the sofa bed that is already gathering dust elsewhere in the house, perfectly adequate for all those friends that never visit.
We considered converting the room into a home office. But I’d always preferred working in the lounge, surrounded by bookcases and within range of the espresso machine next-door in the kitchen.
We kept wondering what else we could put in the room — a desk? a sofa? a wardrobe? — but without first knowing the room’s purpose it was a pointless question. Meanwhile, the room was left empty for weeks.
And a curious thing happened.
The longer the room was left empty, the more we used it.
I started using it to do my back exercises every morning — for a tall person like me there was nowhere better in the house to stretch out.
My wife began using it as a dressing room.
I’ve used it for feeble attempts at meditation.
My wife has used it to learn a new instrument.
I sometimes use it for stargazing, or simply for staring out of the window.
I’ve even begun using the room for work, when it catches the sun in the morning. Without furniture, I just sit or lie on the floor, reading or writing, balancing my laptop in the appropriate position. Is it comfortable? Not really. Is it productive? Absolutely. No time to waste on social media when you know leg cramp is just a few minutes away. And no chance of developing repetitive strain when you’re constantly moving body position. Win, win, win.
And so, while taking care to re-empty the room after every use, the wins have kept on piling up.
The empty room is now the most productive and versatile space in the house.
It is truly transformational. Even though the room is tiny, it now feels huge. And because the room is not primed for any particular purpose, it has begun to shape us in different ways — trying new things, forming new habits, exploring new possibilities.
The room is also easier to maintain. It now takes two minutes to clean, instead of twenty. Yep, another big win.
Of course, an empty room may seem like the ultimate luxury. Lucky are those who can afford a big enough house to have a spare, empty room. But I’m beginning to look at it differently. Would it be better to have a smaller house with a larger proportion of empty space? Do our houses look the way they do, simply because of old conventions that are no longer questioned?
Just as pre-configured rooms dictate and constrain how we use them, we are shaped by our work places, tools and habits.
As Churchill implied, we can fall prey to invisible and unnecessary limitations because they’ve become so ingrained — even if we created them in the first place.
Would our actions be more intentional if we had more ‘emptiness’ in our diaries and offices? Would our workflows improve if we had more ‘emptiness’ in our technologies? Once new realities reveal themselves, would we even keep pursuing the same goals?
So, before we set out to transform things and envision what’s next, sometimes it may be best to remove everything that’s currently there — physically or metaphorically — to let old assumptions or expectations fall away. We may be surprised by what comes to light.
In the meantime, I’ll get back to my empty room.
What else am I going to find in it today?
All photographs by the author.