The House We Live In: A Series on Building the Sustainable Home in Tucson, Arizona
It’s such a buzzword, isn’t it? Multitasking. The key to increased productivity and more free time, or the reason for the decline in quality of so much work being done nowadays. I’ve certainly caught myself taking much longer on a work project than I probably needed because I kept switching back and forth between tasks. Emails arrived; I answered them instead of waiting for a good breaking point. Or I’d be researching in one window and writing in another and not really completing a thought in either realm. On the other hand, catching up on the news while I get a workout, or answering a few emails while a sauce thickens can really save time. The trick, and I’ll be the first to tell you I have not mastered it, is figuring out which situations are which.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about my desk and the variety of things I use it for. In law school, when I managed to make a little time and try to sit down and write, I had a lot of trouble doing it at the desk where I did my many, many, many hours of homework. Although the law practice I have now does not feel at odds with creativity—in fact I find there’s a kind of synergy—the kind of rote study required especially early in law school can feel like the opposite of creative thought. My then-husband, creative soul that he is, proposed a solution: a separate desk. I didn’t need a lot of space; I didn’t need to spread books all over it and store supplies. I just needed some psychic distance. We were at Ikea that same night, and we squeezed a tiny desk into the already crowded living room of our none-too-spacious apartment.
It worked. Sitting down there was a signal to myself and anyone else who might be around that I was in the creative mode. I didn’t use the desk for anything else. If I wanted to check my email, I had to get up an go sit somewhere else. I could use the internet if I had some specific factual question to answer for the story I was writing, but otherwise it was off limits from that desk. And most important, I never brought my law books there. When I lived in Montana, in a much larger house, I had the luxury of a whole separate space, with a wide table, a special rug, a lamp, room for storage of all my writing-related books, my archive of notebooks, typewriter and laptop and fountain pen, all on a different floor of the house from the desk where I would sometimes work from home or pay the bills.
Now, I’ve chosen to compress the space in which I live. It doesn’t make sense to have multiple desks when space is at premium. Instead, I need to design a desk that can multitask. I need a way to make the desk be both a work space and a creative space without sacrificing the quality of either experience. I need a way to differentiate one use from the other without physically separating them. Consistent with the ethos of this project, this is not going to mean that I have to sacrifice the things I really want in a home. It means I need to continue to think and design it meticulously. The whole project is intricate, relying on Matthew’s patience and precision and our communication to make all of the space serve. Everything I need has so far found a place inside the existing perfect square. More space needed somewhere has meant finding a place to take it from. And Matthew has done it every single time.
Surely a desk can multitask without growing bigger. It could have two completely separate sets of drawers, one on each side, each with its own accessories (tape flags, paperclips, business cards, retractable pens on one side; fountain pen with ink bottles, typewriter ribbons, candle and matches on the other). It could have two different lamps, perhaps a very focused task lamp for the work work and something softer and more colorful for fiction. I could use other spaces besides the desk; maybe bill-paying will be a kitchen table activity. One of my built-in living room cabinets could house a basket with a checkbook, envelopes, stamps, a few pens, and a slot where the handful of bills that still arrive by mail could collect. I could have a wall hanging in the space above the desk that’s double-sided, with a different color and pattern on each side that gets flipped depending on use. Or perhaps even two signs that can each hang on a hook in that spot, each with a message appropriate to the task.
In thinking this through, I experience one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about the project so far: working within limitations yields not frustration, not sacrifice, but innovation. The solutions end up not as compromises, but as features far more satisfying in their precision than the original thought that used more space. It becomes a truly effective multitask—synergy rather than distraction, perfectly interlocking steps that serve twin goals with a small miracle of efficiency brought about not by mere design curiosity, but by commitment to a principle.
P.S. I painted my toenails while I wrote this post.
Amy Knight is the fiction editor for Terrain.org. In this weekly blog series, she chronicles the process of designing and building an eco-friendly house in Tucson, Arizona. The series will explore both how it’s done and what it means, from the perspective of someone who wants to do the right thing but knows almost nothing about sustainable building. Look for new posts every Monday. You can email Amy at [email protected] or leave a comment here.