This is currently an unfinished note. Not fully an evergreen note.
I’ve been experimenting with this method where I am using peripheral vision and various physical and digital objects as subtle cues to improve attention, creativity, and productivity as well. At least, this is what I tell myself. And peripheral vision is essentially a side mechanism of your vision that allows you to see with fewer eye fixations. And we are using it every single day. While driving, while checking someone out, or while trying to cheat on an exam. It is a survival mechanism of the physical world. I found that organising your physical space in such a way that you have various subtle cues lowkey telling you what you should do next, is an important feature of environmental design.
Blocked in your own rectangle
But if you are working in the digital space, you are not making use of your peripheral vision that much. Mostly because we can pretty much capture everything on our screens, but, also, because we think that productivity is only about getting from point A to point B without distraction and full focus. This is why our apps allow us to enter into a full-focus mode, where only you and the app exists. Nowadays, you are mostly stuck inside your own rectangle. This thing we call a computer. And the tools you are using are inside this small rectangle and we think that there’s no need to get out of it if we want to produce. We only work inside the rectangle. But, if you look in the past, what used to be traditional craftsmanship - took place in a physical environment, a shop, or a studio, a room where the craftsman is surrounded by all of these different tools. The creator has to move, has to think about how to place himself within the space and the room becomes an extension of himself. But, in our cases, our task list ends up staying hidden in your taskbar until you open it up. If you are a writer or researcher, your docs are probably tucked away in some folder, or the cloud, being thoroughly categorised until you decide that it is writing time and you need to access them. And only then you open them up. In the digital space, it can be tricky for you to leave a cue, a breadcrumb that can come in handy and quickly put you up to speed with what you need to do or what is missing so that you can keep working. The type of questions we need to ask is not about How can I get out of the rectangle? but How can I work together with the rectangle?
What are the things you can do to design your space in such a way that empowers and enables you to create awesome stuff? In the physical world, you can make use of the way you choose to design your environment and play around with the potential of your peripheral vision to get more things done. At least, this is what I’ve been trying to do.
Peripheral vision in action in the physical world
So if I get a new book from the library, I will place it on my desk so that I can see it every single day. I can also place a pen nearby so that when I am going to pick it up, I can pick the pen up as well for my marginalia practice. I can then use my rectangle to take a few contextual-based notes, that might influence my current day. I can then jump into my notebook and start drawing something or stitching something together. You can make use of something like a simple note-card, where you pop off ideas and you can shuffle them around, you can move them, connect them, toss them away or bring them back. If I have a glass of water on my desk, I’ll be more willing to pick it up and drink it in some moments when I am thinking ( Finding time to write and reflect ). If I want to make a habit and write something up in my journal every single day, I will keep it on my desk to make it easier for me to pick it up. Always remember to tweak and Invest in things that can eliminate friction Now, there’s also this thing happening where your objects manage to stay on your desk for too much, not being touched by you. And this is where you will have to shuffle them up and keep the novelty and the colors going.
Peripheral vision in the digital space
If you are looking at UI design, there’s a minimalist trend going on, where we’ve been trying to simplify our experience. We have eliminated all of the messy papers we used to have all across our desks, research notes, opened almanacs containing illustrations and often forgotten golden nuggets and, we dumped everything inside the rectangle. Again, we place our writing materials in specific folders, and the focus is always on the note you working on, the one that’s open on your screen. If you would like to have a special relationship like you do on your desk, where you have your notebook on the left, reading materials, things to check, with everything roughly organized by context — it is impossible to simulate all of that yet. If you are highlighting something while reading a digital book on Kindle, it can be hard to come back to it and extrapolate from that specific point, as there is often no context you can use.
Using Second Monitors
If you want to keep your desk clean and you are a digital minimalist as well, one thing you can do is to buy a second monitor. You do not need to get an overpowered one, but only one that can help you make use of your peripheral vision. This is how SpaceX does it while launching a rocket into space. The engineers there are not fully locked inside their rectangles but have two, three, four monitors in place, papers on their desks, and they are also connected with their peers. And this is also how Tony Stark does it. Now, briefly going through my current setup, I do have two screens connected to my Mac Mini. I am also sometimes making use of a small tablet where I have a YouTube, a Spotify playlist, a movie maybe, or a Twitch stream running in the background. I’m working on my main monitor and I use the second one as a sort of a whiteboard, where I will keep my to-do list, my inbox with things to process, and things I would want to check and it is also a location where I place various links to videos, research, articles I stumble upon while working on my current task. The reason I keep one of these open is that I do not want to break my flow and start going down that thread I found, so need a quick way to put it somewhere and read it later. And the second monitor is mostly static, again, it is like a whiteboard.
Using Physical To Aid Digital
One small thing I added to my physical space so that I can make use of my peripheral vision is a simple Rubick’s cube that is in close proximity to my hands, so that I can be more inclined to pick it up. Not necessarily finish it, but simply play around with it. So when I am writing a script for a YouTube video or reviewing what I’ve managed to build, or maybe watch a video for inspiration, in these dead moments, I would pick up the cube and start fidgeting. And there are also benefits that come along with this exercise. Cognitive research suggests that fidgeting is associated with how stimulated we are. That is, fidgeting may be a self-regulation mechanism to help us boost or lower our attention levels depending on what is required – either calming or energizing us. And for myself, I found that having various objects in my proximity so that I can make use of my peripheral vision, I will use these objects more often. I would be more inclined to pick up a brush, or a specific pencil if I can see it with my peripheral vision. Instead of having them tucked away in some drawer until when I decide that it is the time for me to doodle! Keeping my notes slightly messy on purpose, to encourage connections and expand my horizon.
There is balance to be found
And in this world of continuous output, there’s a simple and clean desk setup trend, with people having ultra-minimal desks, almost ending to having no desk at all and doing the work using thin air. But I found that we often forget that actually engaging with physical objects can come in as a support structure for our main activities. And yes, in a way, having nothing on my desk forces me to focus only on my black rectangle, on my computer. But I am then running into a different problem where I have to deal with way more stuff inside the rectangle, with the internet making it harder and harder for me to focus. It is easier for me to choose some particular objects I want to have on my desk versus the unlimited potential of a fresh browser. There’s also balance to be found. There’s a threshold. I could not find a way to work properly by having tons of stuff on my desk. So what I’ve been doing is using environmental design to supplement and construct some support pillars that can make my everyday tasks more enjoyable and also decrease the friction & the possibility to forget. And you should only keep what is interesting to you, fun, but also what has the potential to become something else. Because in the digital space, you can act only upon what you can see, while in the physical space, you can only see what you can act upon.
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