Trading spaces

Let's talk about switching gears

Despite our greatest efforts, we rarely get to decide what we miss about someone after they’re gone. If we’re lucky, our nostalgia lenses may wander to memories of sleepless nights filled with laughs, or the time they thanklessly spent hours teaching you how to skip rocks out on the river. Unfortunately, our hearts are often less kind than that, and we find ourselves missing the things that we either took for granted or let ourselves get too bugged by. 

That’s what happened last Wednesday as I watched everything unfold in Washington, and I thought about what my nana would be saying to me about it—she’d almost certainly have called to say “can you believe this?” 

She’d call me in astonishment at what we saw unfold, I’d respond in earnest, and the conversation would slowly devolve into squabbles over who’s really trying to stage a coup, then I’d get off the phone ready to scream. Though frustrating and often saddening, these occurrences didn’t define our relationship, but did put the cliched strain on family gatherings. Every year my nana’s thinking seemed to be more radical and detached, and I hated it—the woman who’d shaped so much of my world view seemed to be losing touch with the rest of us. Now that she’s been gone for two years, though, I can't help but think that I'd endure the frustrations of her political rants and their accompanying exhaustion if it meant we'd get to talk again, even if just for a little while. 

Dwelling on the things that strained our relationships with loved ones won’t bring them back, though, and it can’t invoke the same warmth that comes with reflecting on the ways they made your heart feel whole. There’s no sense in mulling over how angry we’d be with each other about the latest headlines when there’s photo albums full of brighter days we spent together that helped shape the things I love most in life.

I always admired my nana’s ability to pour so much focus into whatever she was doing and tune out everything else. If she wanted to spend an hour chipping away at her latest puzzle, little could stand between her and her plyboard mosaic of scattered pieces searching for their home. Once the dust in the house got under her skin, she’d go at full speed until she’d obliterated the enemy. More than anybody else I know, she mastered the art of providing space for the things that mattered to her and giving them enough room to breathe.

In her guest bedroom, she set up an old laptop at her desk, neatly decorated with her favorite photos and trinkets, for the sole purpose of playing a few rounds of solitaire in her bouts of restlessness. Every house she lived in had a lush garden she’d tend to every day, rarely faltering long enough for a plant to wilt under her watch. At the end of a long day, she’d sit under her grapevine and watch the bright orange Arizona sun set behind the mountains with my tata and their dogs, meditating on whatever may have been floating around their heads all day. 

I’ve not been able to mirror my nana’s clarity in space and thought, but, as often as I can, I try to carry it with me in how I move through the world. As my world’s been narrowed down to the walls of my apartment, that’s become increasingly important, so I’m trying to build out more thoughtful spaces that help keep me grounded in times of restlessness and discomfort. That’s taken the form of arranging my rooms to better suit how we go about our days now, changing our furniture out for more comfortable pieces that suit spending more time around the house, and setting up my devices to make transitioning from a long day at work to more replenishing things less tedious. 

Blank space, baby

If you’re going to have any shot at building barriers between the various aspects of your life—a powerful tool in fighting burnout—you have to define your spaces, first. Look wherever you wish for inspiration on how those divided spaces may look, but I like to think of them the same way my nana and tata did. 

At their home in midtown Tucson, my tata had a shed he spent his days woodworking in, building various furnishings to go throughout their home or just trying out different pieces of decor to round things out. He’d picked up on my eagerness to help, and he always made a point to help me lean into my spurts of creativity, so he would leave piles of scrap wood and spare planks at the base of their largest tree. There, I was free to grab whatever parts sparked some sort of cool toy or gizmo in my head and hammer away (drills, saws, glue, and the like were all smartly kept out of my reach) until I walked away with something to keep me busy for a few hours. 

I don’t have a shed, and woodworking isn’t really a staple in my life anymore. But that tree, where my cousin and I spent days plotting out how to build a moving Megazord out of loose pieces of plywood, was one of the first places I had free reign to do as I pleased, and had enough room to let my ideas flourish and come to fruition without external obligations getting up in the mix.

That’s the same idea that CGP Grey uses for the foundation of his video, “Spaceship You,” which he released at the beginning of the pandemic as an outline for how you can build separate spaces within the confines of your home, no matter its size. As long as you're able to set up some sort of cue for shifting gears, whether that's having a dedicated office for work, or just putting up a different decoration on your desk when you log off for the night, you're in good shape.

When it comes to our laptops and phones, though, not everyone is lucky enough to have a separate laptop for work; maybe your work laptop is your only computer, or perhaps work hasn’t provided you with one, so you’ve set up your own personal computer to tackle the workload. Despite the vast array of organizational tools out there, it can be surprisingly difficult to implement something resembling Gray’s separation of spaces in your digital tools. The rigidity of an all-encompassing gizmo that serves as your media player, chat hub, and portal to all the goings on of social media, doesn’t have to be as solidified as your physical spaces; instead, think of ways to smooth the transition between different actions so that your mind can still make that shift without having to grab an entirely different gadget.


It’s understandable that we might feel inclined to throw all our work-related apps onto our phones—we carry them with us all the time, so why not make it easier to get a hold of everything we need, right? That said, there are plenty of reasons to avoid doing so: it may give your employer more insight into what you’re doing all day, or simply contribute to job creep and make it more difficult to turn work mode off at the end of a long day. 

Having separate phones isn’t practical nor useful, and keeping anything work-related off your phone isn’t an option for everybody. If you’re in that boat, there’s one small way you can arrange things to make sure that your work-related apps get out of the way when you’re done with the day’s tasks. 

With the big home screen revamp of iOS 14, Apple introduced the ability to hide home screens, so you can keep the most relevant stuff front and center, then hide the rest. It’d be nice if this were automated, and learned to present home screens based on your usage, but even doing it manually gives you enough time to pause and shift gears in your mind as you move from managing your work obligations to browsing your feeds after hours. 

If you set up your home screens based on different “areas” of your life—work, home, health, social media, music and videos, or whatever else tickles your fancy—you can disable all the others until you need them, so you’re only presented with relevant stuff at any given time. Put all your work-related apps like email or to-do lists onto that home screen, that way they’ll be right where you need them as you dip in and out of meetings and documents all day, and then you can close them when you clock out.

To do that, just hold down anywhere on the home screen, then tap the little dots at the bottom of the screen. Below each home screen, you’ll see a circle with a check mark inside of it. For your work screen, tap that circle and the page will disappear once you exit out of the edit page. Now when you swipe across your home screen, you won’t see any of your work junk, so you don’t have to be worried about any red bubbles stressing you out after hours. You’ll have to manually go through these steps  to get the screen to show up again, which is annoying, but if it helps keep you away from Slack at 10 pm, it’s worth it. 

You can further this by enabling App Limits in iOS’s settings. Limits are organized by categories, so you could limit your Productivity apps (you can get really granular and pick which apps in each category get restrictions) to a few hours a day depending on your work, and they'll lock you out after that time limit is reached. It's a bit more rigid, but if you struggle with setting those boundaries in your mind, it can be a good first step.

Let's get loud

I’ve written about ambient noise before, but it's worth revisiting how they can ease your transitions between different "zones" in your life. If you trick your brain into associating certain soundscapes—say, a flock of seagulls soaring over the pier or a chatty day at a coffee shop—with your different zones, you'll be able to hint to yourself that it's time to shift gears and move on to something else. 

In addition to Dark Noise and the methods I laid out in my last issue on the topic, I’ve found a few other things useful in giving my ears something to latch onto. Endel is an AI-powered ambient noise player that creates an endless stream of music based on what type of activity you’re engaged in. There's also the podcast Field Recordings, in which different people submit recordings of themselves out in the field, giving you a different soundscape to tune into with each episode. If you fancy an escape to Lill Pilli Beach in South Wales, a night of winter rain in New York, or a church piano in New Orleans, this podcast is for you. 

Lights out

We’re gonna wrap up with a simple one that may not work for everyone, but could be of some use if you’re more into visual cues. Windows and macOS both come with dark modes now, and if you don’t use it strictly for browsing during the wee hours of the night, you can designate one for work time, and the other for everything else, so at least your brain will know when it’s supposed to be working and when it’s fine to just flip through your tabs for a while. 

This isn’t much, but like having a corner of the room just for reading, or changing into a pair of actual pants before starting work from your dining room table, a small change in your environment will signal to your brain that it's time to switch modes of thinking and get on with the day. So if you use light mode for work time, once the lights go out, so does your obligation to get any work done for the day. On our most gruelling days, such a switch can bring with it a powerful sense of relief. 

📚 Good Reads:

What’s wrong with the way we work (The New Yorker): It’s no secret that work burnout has taken its toll on many of us. People work too many hours, shape their lives around flimsy work schedules, and bank on getting enough hours each week to pay the bills. Jill Lepore turns back the clock to look at the evolution of work and craft in America, and how anti-labor efforts have led to a generation of burnt out workers who are just trying to get by. 

Your media diet will never be the same (Wired): The pandemic has changed our media consumption habits in ways we may not be proud of; I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve cycled through Bob’s Burgers and Bojack Horseman since starting my lockdown last year. The slew of changes to streaming we’ve seen since last March, like feature films debuting on streaming services, are likely going to stick around in some fashion, but Angela Watercutter makes the case that some aspects of the old way (cable news, for one) are probably here to stay. 

How to work through a coup (Culture Study): When my nana and tata first passed, I had a hard time talking about it. I wasn’t sure what to do with all of the deep sadness, frustration, anger, and helplessness that felt unbearably heavy at the time, so I chugged along, poured myself into other projects, and hoped for the best. Unhealthy as it was, I managed to work through it eventually, but that was also before COVID-19 and the insurgency of last week. Living through all of this is exhausting, and, as Anne Helen Petersen argues, it’s crucial to give yourself some space to just feel whatever your heart needs to feel right now. 

🌐 Just Browsing:

🍽️ The customer isn’t always right. 🌞 The joy of waking up early. 🐶 Thanks to TikTok, people are trying to get their pets to talk. 🥽 VR isn’t a hit, and that’s perfectly fine. 📙 How Studyblr found its way to TikTok. ♟️ How micro-strategy games boomed in 2020. 🚮 If you’re not up to speed on Bean Dad, Garbage Day has a good rundown of that whole mess. 🕵🏼‍♂️ How COVID-19 threw the privacy debate for a loop. 👤 Take some time to read Hunter Harris’s profile of Zendaya for GQ. 🌏 How to become a climate revolutionary in 2021. 👾 Read through the evolution of the game controller. 🖼️ How a digital picture frame can keep you in touch with your loved ones. 

💕 And now, here's something we hope you'll really like:

I have been obsessed with the Guldies YouTube channel lately. They’re an animation studio specializing in claymation, and their short films are stunning. The detail in the sets, paired with pleasant sound design and smooth animations, videos like “GOING FISHING” provide a delightful escape. They even have work in progress videos that give you a glimpse into how blobs of clay get turned into stunning set pieces. 

✉️ You’ve got mail:

I want to hear from you! How can you build better spaces for yourself? Let me know down in the comments, or drop me a line on Twitter.

My thanks to Medea Giordano for editing this issue.