8 June 2021

My desk is an extension of my nervous system

This is Lab Test #04 from the Digital Habit Lab

Each week we release two new experiments from the Digital Habit Lab, launching on Kickstarter later this year. It is designed to help you bring awareness to your digital habits and make them more intentional.

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If the name Saul Steinberg doesn't sound familiar, then the chances are that you are not an American. Steinberg (a Romanian of Jewish decent who sought refuge in New York during the second world war) was a hugely talented artist who was perhaps best known for the 85 covers which he illustrated for the New Yorker magazine between 1941 and 1999.

He was quite a private figure but (thanks to the miracle that is YouTube) we have access to this wonderful archive footage from 1967 where he speaks at length about his vision of art, society and life.

Saul Steinberg working in his studio

At the very beginning of the video we join Steinberg in his home studio as he starts one of his ink sketches. It's a simple scene that lasts only 30 seconds or so but it gives us a deep insight into the working methods of a man who regularly used rituals to fuel his creative process.

We find him sat at an enormous desk that supports a large sheet of blank paper while still leaving plenty of room in all directions to have his many materials arranged messily, but purposefully, within arms reach. As we watch him dipping his pen into an ink well, we hear him describing his morning routine:

"In the morning, I get up and I work, it's a necessity. I start with the idea of a drawing. I have an appetite to make a drawing. I have everything looking at me: paper, ink, pencil, and so on. Drawing is my way of explaining to myself what goes on in my mind."

Saul Steinberg: Untitled, 1948. Ink on paper, 14 ¼ x 11 ¼ in. Saul Steinberg Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

What he is describing here is both a mental process for starting each day with clarity and the necessary environmental conditions which he requires to help facilitate this. For Steinberg, drawing is an essential process which not only relies on but begins with a purposeful gathering of all of his materials. The preparation and the act cannot be meaningfully separated and they represent a unity of mind and activity which is the hallmark of a deep and purposeful state of concentration.

For many of us this state of flow is likely something that we desire and yet are not confident in orchestrating for ourselves. We constantly hope it will happen to us, instead of setting aside dedicated time to bring it about from within us. It's all too easy to begin our working day jumping straight into emails and working on documents because these things are urgent and they occupy our minds. But if we are doing this without first going through a process of aligning our outer and inner environments then we are mainly being reactive and getting a real grip on our day will feel very challenging.

Professional chefs have a name for this process: 'Mise en Place', meaning literally 'everything in it's place'.

Speak to any chef, and you'll soon realise that Mise en Place is not simply gathering all of the tools and ingredients you will need to successfully cook a dish; it's a way of being, a life philosophy. It is a ritualised alignment of inner and outer environments which imbues each action with confidence and ownership. Anthony Bourdain describes it beautifully in his book by saying "As a cook, your station, and its condition, it's state of readiness, is an extension of your nervous system."

Saul Steinberg: Summer Table, 1981. Mixed media on wood assemblage, 57 x 80 x 36 in. Private collection

Now may be a good moment to take a quick glance at your own work station (whether thats your standing desk or the kitchen table) and imagine it as an extension of your nervous system. Does it represent a state of clarity and readiness? Remember, like Saul Steinberg, that doesn't necessarily mean a meticulously clean desk, but one that has been carefully curated to support the work that is most important to you right now.

If, like me, you don't like what you find then maybe it's worth experimenting with introducing a ritual so start your working day; permission to spend time gathering your thoughts and purpose while organising your external and digital environments to serve as a support for them.

Ok, now what?

Below are two experiments from the Digital Habit Lab to help you understand exactly how breathtaking your emails are. Over the next week, try playing with these and observe what happens to gain insight into your own habits.

We would love to hear how you get on, so do get in touch and let us know what you find!