Spacemaker: a book review of sorts

I’ve known Daniel Sih for many years. Now, when I say “known”, I mean that I’ve attended a couple of his training courses and am on his mailing list. That qualifies as knowing someone these days, right?

I first became aware of Daniel and his company Spacemakers, that he runs with his business partner Tim, several years ago when I enrolled in their Email Ninja course through work. (I just checked. It was 2013. That was eight years ago. A bit longer ago than I ‘d thought. Doesn’t time fly when we’re having fun.)

At the time, I’d been learning about productivity online, and terms like “GTD” and “Inbox Zero” were becoming very familiar to me. I was excited to find Spacemakers using the same concepts because, while I’d been connecting with people online about this stuff, I wasn’t aware of anyone in Hobart who was teaching it.

Earlier this year, Daniel said that he was writing a book about (his words) “the making and meaning of space”, which immediately captured my attention.

I’d recently attended his Priority Samurai course and one of the things it recommended was making deliberate space in your schedule to think. In fact, this was my top takeaway from the course, but I struggled to do it. Just to clarify, this type of thinking is big-picture, deep thinking, not the type of thinking that I do all day and when I can’t sleep at night, which is more like ruminating on things I can’t change and overthinking minute details. I don’t need to make time to do that.

Now for sure, it’s easy enough to schedule an hour “thinking time” in my calendar. I can do that in five seconds. But making the time doesn’t mean I’m going to actually use it for that purpose though. I’m probably going to sort emails, or check Twitter, or keep working on whatever I’m working on, or let someone schedule a meeting over the top of it.

That thing where they tell you to make appointments with yourself in the same way that you schedule doctors appointments so that you’re obliged to turn up is all good in theory, but there’s no immediate consequence for not turning up. If I don’t turn up to the doctor, I get charged a no-show fee, but if I don’t turn up to my thinking time, who knows, and who cares? Someone asks me to do something? Sure, I’ll do it in my thinking time.

If I do something for someone else in my allotted thinking time, I’ll deliver something and people (aka my boss) will see I’ve been working. Whereas if I’m engaging in thinking (or working on a longer term project that requires a lot of background work and, dare I say it, thinking), there won’t be a tangible outcome I’ll have to show for it at the end. There won’t be anything I can point at and say “look what I’ve done today”.
I don’t know if producing an output is an expectation I place on myself and, therefore, project onto others. I don’t know if it’s just me thinking that they expect me to be doing something all the time and that, therefore, I need to be seen to be doing something and that I need have a “thing” at the end of it – or if this is a real expectation on their part. I’ve never actually asked anyone.

It seems like a weird thing to ask. “Hey, boss, is it okay if I just go out for a hour and think?” I mean, what does one actually do during this time? Even if I schedule the time and something else hasn’t popped up in the meantime, I never do it because I’m not sure what do to. It seems overly indulgent to schedule time to do something that I can’t actually define. Do I go to a coffee shop and just sit there and think? Can I turn on thinking like a tap? Whenever I wonder about this it reminds me of the Star Trek episode where 7 of 9 is supervising some kids and she’s been told to let them have fun, so she schedules fun into their routine and tells them “fun will now commence” . . .

Sit down at coffee shop. Start thinking.

Okay. That’s weird.

I asked Daniel about this and he said it’s not unusual to think that thinking isn’t real work, and that he he found creating patterns worked for him. He said he’d written about it in the book.

Ah yes, the book. I was getting to that. You thought this post was about the book didn’t you? Nah, it’s about me.

Okay, it’s a bit about the book.

The book Spacemaker by Daniel Sih on a desk with two Lamy pens and a cup of coffee
The book. I read it. It’s great!

Spacemaker: the book

The book is great. It’s divided into four sections that lead us from the big picture influences on our relationships with the digital world, the principles we need to redefine that relationship and, finally, some practical actions we can do to help us unplug and to make that a regular way of life.

Daniel suggests that unplugging is not just a way to survive the week but a “strategy to produce your best work” and calls the book a “journey to uncover the making of space in our busy lives”.

One thing I especially like is that there’s a summary page of each chapter and an idea to think about (perhaps in your new-found thinking time?) and each section concludes by asking the reader to identify three significant insights, two practical actions and one big question that remains.

Yes, there is actual work in this book.

I ended the second section, The Paradigm, with seven key insights, rather than three, perhaps the most interesting of which is the distinction between tamed power—that is, power that we have acquired as a result of struggle and discipline, things we have learned for ourselves and experienced—and inherited power, which is power that gets handed to us on a platter without giving us any understanding of the nature of the power or what it can do. Daniel suggests that our current devices give us the latter form of power, and that at times this is beyond our maturity to handle. This can lead to the devices being our masters rather than us being the masters of the devices. He says we need to use this power “selectively, to create and serve, rather than simply take and consume” (pages 51-52).

This isn’t something I’ve really considered before and it certainly makes me look at the little phone in my hand in a different light.

The third section of the book is called The Principles, and it covers the five principles of spacemaking, we we can then use to build our practices on. It looks like this:

  • Set limits
  • Plan patterns
  • Assign rest
  • Cultivate community
  • Embrace silence

If you know me at all, you’ll know which of the five I wanted to skip ahead to, but the other four are all important and I struggle with all of them. Especially the rest one, as I’ve talked about in recent weekly updates and, of course, the patterns one, which is about scheduling time intentionally, including that elusive thinking time.

I was very patient as I read through the first four chapters to get to the one that I crave.

My three key insights from this part of the book were

  • Limits require us to say no to some things in order to say yes to better things (page 94).
  • Our repetitive actions and behaviours shape who we are; they influence our thoughts and emotions at a biological level (page 105). This is pretty mindblowing stuff.
  • There is a difference between high quality leisure activities (which fill the heart, mind and soul) and low quality leisure activities (which are passive and consumptive) (page 120, taken from Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism).

Two actions

  • Undertake a digital audit: keep a notebook and make a list of everything you do habitually. Rebuild your routines to become more self aware and intentional about when, where and how often you use your digital tools (page 99).
  • Plan patterns by starting small: for example, be screen free from 9 pm Sundays and build on it(page 113).
  • Okay, three actions. I’m not very good at sticking to limits. Prioritise restorative rest. Actually build this into your schedule a top priority (aka a “big rock”) and fit other things around that (page 119).

If you read my week 23/2021 post you might remember that this is a big one for me and something I’m trying to do better. Combining it with Daniel’s suggestion to start small (really small), I’m realising that I’m trying to do too much at once and that’s why it’s not working.

In part 4, Daniel says, “Ideas must be translated into practice. If we are committed to our beliefs, we must also be willing to test them in reality” (page 159). This part outlines six practices that we can adopt to unplug and make space. These range from paying your annual holidays in advance to taking a daily pause. Most of these Daniel has written about on the Spacemakers blog and/or covered in one of his courses, but in the book he has more space to write about the rationale for these practices and how they work for him (see what I did there?). It’s helpful to see them all laid out together in the book, along with the pivotal question “what is the next action?”

Daniel says while taken together this may all seem overwhelming, the key is to consider spacemaking as a process, and what you need to do is to think about your own situation, break things down, make a start on one small action and then move onto the next small action (page 162).

It’s a reminder I need constantly. Trying to make big changes doesn’t work. They don’t stick. I can’t do all of this at once . . . And perhaps I don’t need to do all of them. Perhaps just changing three or four things will be enough to give me the rest, space and thinking time I need and am comfortable with. But I have to do something to know how far I need to go.

Daniel also observes that his way of starting at the top (the annual holidays) and working down to the daily level works for him but might not work for everyone, so you can work through them in whatever way makes sense to you. The key is to start somewhere.

So that’s it. I highly recommend reading this book both to give you an insight into why we have the relationship with technology that we do and, if you decide that the relationship isn’t supporting you, to get some very practical steps to take to make changes. To make space. To make time to think deeply and purposefully.

For my next action, I’ve decided to start at the bottom, with the daily pause, and specifically to review and rework my evening wind-down routine. It’s something I’ve not been successful at but I know that I need better sleep and I know I need more of it.

The other one is thinking time. Remember that? I haven’t forgotten. The daily pause chapter covers that too.

So this is my work starting in the next week.

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