Go ahead, keep your desk messy—science says it’s okay

This week on Idealists in Action, we’re exploring the concept of Home.

Research suggests that having a messy desk might make us more imaginative.

When it comes to workspaces, whatever works for you is best.
(image courtesy Shutterstock)

As a generally unkempt person, I tend to take issue with the “messy desk, messy mind” principle that tidy folks occasionally bring up (usually with one eyebrow cocked). But it turns out that science is on my side.

New studies are showing that it’s less important to rid your workspace of clutter than it is to design and organize a space that fits with your personal tastes. When we have control over the look and feel of our workspaces, it increases our productivity and all-around efficiency.

Psychologist-turned-writer Dr. Christian Jarrett explains this—and other new workspace organization research—in the 99U article “The Perfect Workspace (According to Science)“.

Though he asserts that individual tastes rule, Jarrett does have some decor ideas that work well for most people. Try working these into your own personal decorating scheme:

Choose rounded furniture and arrange it wisely

If you have the luxury of designing your own workspace, consider choosing a layout and furniture that is curved and rounded rather than sharp and straight-edged.

Creating this environment has been linked with positive emotions, which is known to be beneficial for creativity and productivity (added bonus: there’s also less chance of knocking an elbow or knee on a sharp corner).

Take advantage of color, light, and space

Choosing the right color and lighting scheme for your office is one of the simplest ways your environment can enhance your performance.

For instance, exposure to both blue and green has been shown to enhance performance on tasks that require generating new ideas. However, the color red has been linked with superior performance on tasks involving attention to detail.

Make use of plants and windows

If you only do one thing to optimize your workspace, invest in a green plant or two.

Research has repeatedly shown that the presence of office plants has a range of benefits including helping workers recover from demanding activities and lowering stress levels.

But however you decide to decorate or organize your space, says Dr. Jarrett, the most important thing is to do whatever you can to create “an office space that you feel happy and comfortable in.”

Messy desk, it is!

What kind of space do you do your best work in? Share with us in the comments.

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Join Idealist on March 11 as we launch a new global movement for action and change!

 

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New card game brings death to the table

This week’s spotlight: all things death.

 

Can’t make it to a Death Cafe? Try talking about end-of-life issues in the comfort of your home with My Gift of Grace.

“We spend most of our lives avoiding thoughts of mortality, which means that when we have to talk about illness and death, we’re unprepared,” say the folks at The Action Mill, a design firm who recently produced a conversation game that encourages people to talk about end-of-life issues. Called My Gift of Grace, it’s part of the firm’s “contribution to the growing movement to unhide death.”

So how does this game ‘unhide’ death and how could doing that benefit us?

My Gift of Grace is a set of cards that come in three categories: Questions (“If you could plan three things about your own funeral, what would they be?”), Statements (“The worst part about being at the end of my life would be…”), and Activities (“Visit your local cemetery. If you see an employee, ask them what it’s like to work there.”).

Players use the cards to start short discussions with others in the group and to keep notes on; when the game is over, participants are encouraged to keep the cards handy as reminders of the conversations they had.

As for the benefits, the designers cite encouraging giving, better focus on the present, and increasing understanding, for starters:

Anyone can get the game and play it, but we’re designing My Gift of Grace to be given as a gift. Giving is good for us. Generosity makes us happier and healthier and creates social connections.

The game itself is just one part of the social support network we’re designing to help people get unstuck and have important conversations that can help us get perspective and focus on the things that are most important to us in the here and now.

Sharing how you think about the end of your life is also one of the most important gifts you can give to the people who are close to you. Letting them know how you feel about end-of-life issues can save them from a lot of guilt, trauma, and expense down the road in the event they need to make decisions for you.

Read more about the purposes behind and development of My Gift of Grace on The Action Mill’s Kickstarter page. For info about ordering the game when it becomes commercially available (hopefully this month), see MyGiftOfGrace.com.

Have you opened conversations about end-of-life issues with your community? Did the experience help get you unstuck?

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Stitching art, community, and conversation

A 9-year-old Durhamite picks her favorite words from Stitch's list at an event. (Photo credit: Alex Maness  www.alexmaness.com)


A 9-year-old Durhamite picks her favorite words from Stitch’s list at an event. (Photo credit: Alex Maness www.alexmaness.com)

The idea

Last November — at the tail end of a year devoted to hosting 40 conversation-focused events across the country — designers Dipika Kolhli and Akira Morita were left with a seemingly simple question: Can community-driven discussions translate visually?

With a goal to gather insights about the city’s future from the couple’s own community of Durham, NC, Dipika and Akira answered this question with a unique community-saturated project, Stitch.

“One night, while I was brainstorming, I found myself staring at a bunch of sticky notes, all with just a word or two on them—my notes,” says Akira. “And then it came to me. What if we collected just one word from people across Durham about where they wanted the city to go, and then had local artists bring them to life?”

Soon the pair were stopping folks on the street, at farmers market’s, and at local events to jot down local’s single-word hope for the future. From “durable” to “doggy,” “walkable” to “weird,” they quickly gathered a healthy heap of 276 inspiring words from across the city.

“Once people heard what we were doing, they came to us to share their word,” says Akira. “It was great to see the community’s enthusiasm.”

Then, they pinned down local artists to use their craft (whether it be song, photography, poetry or jewelry) to embody select words to share with the community and sell to supporters.

But the next steps, they found, wouldn’t be as easy.

3 things they wish they did differently 

1.  Had a more specific agenda.
“A lot of artists dropped out of the project once they found out there was no specific end goal,” says Akira. “We just wanted to start a tangible discussion and let others take it elsewhere. I learned that even artists are scared of the unfamiliar.”

After losing a third of the originally committed artists, Akira realized that he needed to be more cautious and clear in his approach.

“I have to take baby steps,” he says. “Not everyone can be on the same page as me right off the bat. It’s important to be clear from the start.”

2. Networked more with supporters, artists, and the community in general.

Time, of course, plays a big role in gathering cemented support. Akira admits that he and Dipika needed a stronger initial network of interested people to get their project off the ground. After the fact, however, it brought a spotlight on the small design team and helped usher them into new innovative and creative circles in the community.

3. Was more realistic about funding, the ever-predictable (and frustrating) roadblock for new projects.

Akira and Dipika used Kickstarter to fuel their project and sell the artists’ final pieces, but didn’t reach the hefty $12,000 goal by April 29. However, the $6,799 they did raise was enough to help many artists turn their word-inspired idea into reality.

Again, Akira says that having a stronger network of support from the beginning would help solidify funding down the road. But the pair still remain positive about the funds that did give Stitch the push it needed.

“No, we didn’t quite reach the target,” Akira writes on a recent update on Stitch’s Kickstarter. “And while I can’t say I’m not disappointed, I am more in awe of the support we did get from you.”

Moving forward

Despite the challenges, both financial and social, faced by the duo behind Stitch, Akira and Dipika are anything but discouraged for the future of the project and their further conversation-sparked pursuits.

Now, leaving the tools in the hands of the Durham artists, the pair and their three-year-old son are leaving for a 24-month stint across Asia, in hopes of bringing similar word-based projects to other villages and cities

“Our aim remains the same: create spaces for conversations to happen. Everywhere, with everyone,” says Akira.

But, he remains humble in their efforts, calling the idea more of an “open sourced idea” that can be replicated by other communities with ease.

“The role dialogue plays in our communities is key to where we are going and how we can advance civilization,” says Akira. “We just want to help it get there.”

Want to bring Stitch’s idea to your community and get advice from Akira and Dipika? Send them a message at hello@orangutanswing.com.

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Idea File: What do you want to do before you die?

The idea

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A piece of the wall in Yankton, South Dakota. (Photo by Sarah Mannes Homstad.)

Look around you. Chances are, there’s an unused space nearby. Maybe it’s the abandoned building by the train tracks. Or the empty lot next to your office. Whatever it is, it speaks to a bigger problem that many of our cities, towns, and neighborhoods have: lonely spaces that just sit there, desperate for human interaction.

Artist Candy Chang wants to change that. Her most recent project, Before I Die, helps transform these neglected areas into communal gathering spots for people to reflect on their lives and declare what’s most important to them. How? By writing on a giant chalkboard.

The hopes and dreams to date are humorous and somber, profound and silly:

Before I die I want to open my Museum of Chocolate
Before I die I want to walk on stilts
Before I die I want to have the courage to forgive my father
Before I die I want to help 10000000 people
Before I die I want to be mine
Before I die I want to eat a banana

The project was inspired by a friend Candy lost in New Orleans, which got her contemplating the fragility of our time here.

“Preparing for death is one of the most empowering things you can do. Thinking about death clarifies your life,” she says in a TED talk.

Why we’re adding it to the Idea File

  • Encourages you to confront your mortality. Then makes you want to do something about it.
  • Exposes a shared vulnerability. You might be surprised to find out that your neighbors have the same hopes and dreams as you do.
  • Holds you accountable. Sure, the chalk will be erased in time but the mere act of writing might help you act on what you want to do.
  • Public beautification. Aside from the giant statue of Marilyn Monroe in Chicago, who doesn’t like public art?

How you can replicate it

The wall by Meridian Bridge, which connects South Dakota and Nebraska. (Photo by Sarah Mannes Homstad.)

So far, communities in 51 cities around the world from Oklahoma City to Beirut to Asunción have created their own Before I Die walls to be featured in an upcoming book.

But the project isn’t over, and Candy wants you to take this idea to where you live. With the help of her Civic Center colleagues, she’s created a toolkit for purchase to help you get started: stencils, chalk holders, and more. Can’t find the cash? Check out the free online guide that includes a sample letter of intention for government officials to help you avoid potential pitfalls.

We also reached out to architect Sarah Mannes Homstad who recently created a wall in Yankton, South Dakota from August-October this year with the help of her husband, a carpenter, and the local community.

“The most common themes were family and love. There were almost no hateful posts, except for a few directed at Justin Bieber,” she says.

While she can’t guarantee the teen heartthrob won’t appear on your wall, here’s what she has to say about implementing the project in your community:

Putting the wall up

  • Give yourself time to get city approval. Bureaucratic tape is redder than you think. “If you’re going to insist on doing it on city property then you have to sell the positives, take responsibility for the wall, and not give up if people start pushing back,” she says. “Emphasize that it’s a temporary project and that you can take it down if there are problems.”
  • See if Kickstarter is right for you. Sarah’s group successfully used the crowdfunding site, but it’s helpful to know 1) it excludes people who want to contribute but who don’t have an Amazon.com account and 2) projects that don’t meet their fundraising target by the deadline don’t receive any funding at all. If you decide to use Kickstarter, still connect offline. “I found it was important to connect with three or four key individuals in the community who were: prominent and influential figures, internet savvy, and well-connected through social media. They helped get the word out about the campaign and even appeared at community meetings to help promote and advocate the project,” she says.
  • Host a kickoff event. The event was a nice reward for Kickstarter backers, and a way to attract local newspapers and T.V. stations.
  • Choose a location that has a lot of pedestrian traffic. Meridian Bridge was an ideal choice not only for the amount of people who walked over it everyday, but the opportunity to highlight city architecture and encourage creativity along the riverfront.

Maintaining the wall

  • Think about how you want to divide responsibilities. It was important to Sarah that the wall be documented consistently, so she took on the majority of maintenance, with two people as backups if she wasn’t available. But more volunteers could easily help lighten the workload.
  • Keep the season in mind. Maintaining the wall takes effort – from washdowns to removing profanities – which Sarah found more enjoyable in warmer weather.
  • Believe in the goodness of your community. Ninety-five percent of the posts on the wall were in keeping with the spirit of the project, and defaming comments were either erased in the morning before anyone could see them or scratched out by others. “We viewed ourselves as “facilitators,” not “censors.” For example, a few people wrote that they wanted to legalize marijuana before they died, and we didn’t erase it. Others wanted to see certain politicians win/lose, and we left those, too,” she says.

“Find a couple of people you enjoy working with and then figure out how to do it,” Sarah finally says. “The first time you stand in front of the blackboard after it’s been filled with people’s hopes and dreams, it’ll be one of the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen.”

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Inspired to create your own wall? Feel free to reach out to Sarah for more advice: sarah@mannesarchitects.com.

Do you know of other projects that are fun and potentially replicable? If you’d like us to consider posting it as part of this series, leave a comment below or email celeste [at] idealist [dot] org.

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Idea File: Drive change through PARK (ing) Day

The idea

Every year in September, groups of people band together to transform parking spaces in cities across the world as part of PARK (ing) Day.

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Idealist’s Idea Swap at PARK (ing) Day 2009, where we asked New Yorkers for their suggestions for a better city. (Photo from IIP State via Flickr/Creative Commons.)

From their website:

“The mission of PARK (ing) Day is to call attention to the need for more urban open space, to generate critical debate around how public space is created and allocated, and to improve the quality of urban human habitat … at least until the meter runs out!”

The event began in 2005 when the art and design studio Rebar temporarily planted themselves, a sod of grass, a bench, and a tree in a parking spot as a way to challenge San Francisco’s use of downtown outdoor space.

Since then, thousands of activists, artists, and everyday citizens have put their own local spin on the event as a way to playfully engage their communities. Think flash mob — but with a social conscience.

Why we’re adding it to the Idea File

  • Open source community development. Locals decide what issues in their communities they want to address, and how.
  • Purposeful repurposing. From health clinics to free bike repair shops to urban farms, creative participants all over the world are careful to not let one inch of empty space go to waste.
  • Attainable impact. It may seem like a small thing, but it’s recently inspired city governments to take action. NYC’s pop up café program temporarily places table and chairs in front of businesses to utilize limited street space, for example, while in San Francisco small urban parks called “parklets” can frequently be found where cars used to be.
  • Takes fun seriously. Sure, the ultimate goal is to drive change, but who says you gotta have a straight face to do it? Play a community piano, explore a mini-jungle, or show off your moves at a dance party: the possibilities are endless.

How you can replicate it

In 2011 alone, there were 975 parks in 35 countries from Brazil to South Korea. Rebar has made it easy for you to add to that number this year, providing a comprehensive how-to manual and promotional material such as posters, T-shirts, and more.

We also reached out to the folks behind Brisbane PARK (ing) Day, who’ve helped numerous other cities in Australia get organized, for their advice on how to host a successful event.

Here’s what designer and urbanist Yen Trinh had to say:

  1. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Be tenacious about tapping into the knowledge of the international network.
  2. Partner with the community. Design schools, cafe owners, landscape architects, and urban designers can offer a lot of good ideas.
  3. Know the local laws. There is no quick answer as to whether or not the event is legal. Make sure you know what you can and cannot do, and speak to your local politicians.
  4. Ignore the haters. You’ll likely encounter people who think it’s risky; chances are you’ll pull off the event trouble-free.

“Urban design and public spaces are critical to the well-being of our cities,” Yen finally says. “Things like Park(ing) Day are just one small step to broaden the discussion of what kinds of places we want to live in.”

Do you know of other projects that are fun and potentially replicable? If you’d like us to consider posting it as part of this series, leave a comment below or email celeste [at] idealist [dot] org.

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Contests and fellowships, from entrepreneurship to design

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Image by GlobalX, who helped review Echoing Green applications in 2007 (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Need funding and mentors to get your social change project off the ground? Here’s a handful of contests and fellowships we’ve spotted recently. If you know of others we should promote, leave a comment below.

Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition

  • WHO: University students
  • WHEN: Deadline is November 9
  • WHAT: The University of Washington invites student teams from around the world to propose businesses to reduce poverty in developing world. Semi-finalists are invited to Seattle to visit regional companies, receive expert coaching, present their business ideas to hundreds of professionals, and compete for up to $30,000 in prizes. Details here.

desigNYC Collaborators

  • WHO: New York City nonprofits, city agencies, and pro bono designers
  • WHEN: Deadline is November 10
  • WHAT: This competition pairs NYC organizations with all types of pro bono designers (landscape, interior, communications, architectural, you name it). The designers create solutions to make the organizations’ projects more beautiful and functional – and thus, their neighborhoods more livable, workable, and fun. Nonprofits and designers can find entry info here.

Women for Social Innovation’s Turning Point Prize

  • WHO: Philadelphia-based emerging social entrepreneurs
  • WHEN: Deadline is December 28
  • WHAT: Ladies, got an idea to make Philly the city of sisterly love? Apply for this grant and you could win a $15,000 grant to improve the lives of women, girls and families in the area. Residents and local college students are eligible. Learn more.

Echoing Green Fellowship

  • WHO: English speakers age 18+ whose organizations are in the start-up phase.
  • WHEN: Applications accepted December 5-January 9.
  • WHAT: Calling all visionaries around the world: have a new organization in the works but need some support? This highly competitive program supports its fellows with start-up cash, an $80,000 stipend, technical assistance, and a powerful network over the course of two years to make their idea the next big thing. Criteria and info here.

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Headlines: Muhammad Yunus; Diversity at work; Japan relief

Microfinance and leadership change

  • Microfinance Under Fire (New York Times): For context on the situation of Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank, and a caution: “When an organization has a founder who is intimately associated with it (as Jobs is at Apple), the leadership transition needs to be handled with great care.”
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Tim McNichol, "White Males and Diversity" consultant and coach. Photo credit: OregonDOT (Flickr/Creative Commons).

Diversity at work

  • Diversity is Inefficient (New Organizing Institute blog): Ashindi Maxton writes, “With demographic realities and righteousness on our side, we strive to build diverse movements and organizations. My sense – and tell me if I’m wrong – is that mostly we fail…I’d like to make a few concrete suggestions for how any of us can start right now treating inclusion as a part of our purpose rather than a diversion.”

Relief for Japan

  • LivingSocial offered a unique coupon after the earthquake and tsunami: if subscribers donated $5 to the Red Cross to help with relief work in Japan, the company would match it. Total raised: more than $2 million.

Send us a story for our not-exhaustive news roundup: If you read something that moved you to action or gave you hope, leave a comment below or tweet it to us @idealist.

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