If you’re like me—or the average Fixer Upper viewer—you dream about the day you can see from the kitchen sink, past your dining table to talk to your family sitting in the living room. An “open-concept” kitchen/dining/living space is the current subject of many heart-eye emojis and Pinterest pins; it’s the current trend in home design. But I’ve learned a thing or two from living in apartments and a house that still have separated rooms. If you don’t have the power or the budget to “bust down some walls” at this point in life, fear not—separated living spaces may actually have something to teach us.
The truth about multitasking
While there is undoubtedly something to be said for being able to be surrounded by family or friends whether you’re cooking, studying, or watching TV, I’ve found it really presents a challenge for productivity. I remember sitting at my parents’ kitchen island with my computer in front of me, armed with the best intentions and feeling the pressure of approaching deadlines. I thought I could write, study, or even answer emails in the company of my family.
Yet, time and again, any interesting conversation or remotely appealing TV show in the background won the war for my attention. I could sit in the communal open-concept kitchen/dining/living space for hours staring at my computer and still get nothing done. Sure, there were bedrooms I could have retreated to, but FOMO can make it hard to leave the company of roommates or family members. And it wasn’t just poor judgment in choosing where to do work that made me appreciate the walls between separate rooms. I thought I could cook dinner with the TV on and visible in the living room—just a little background noise. But it took me so much longer to cook or bake when I kept getting distracted—even for a moment—by what was on the TV. I’d have to find my way back to my recipe and remind myself what step I was on.
Fast forward to adult life in my apartments with distinct rooms. There was no more trying to cook and watch TV, trying to work and socialize—I didn’t have the option. Although I missed being able to seemingly do everything at once, I quickly discovered what studies have shown to be true: multitasking doesn’t actually make you more productive. When it is time to make dinner, I cook in the kitchen. Then, I go to the table and eat the food I just made. When I have work to do, I don’t have the option to open up my computer while I’m chatting with family in the kitchen. Cooking, cleaning, and working suddenly don’t take unnecessarily long. I no longer buy into the lie that I can do everything at once. My scatterbrained mind (Where was I on this recipe? What point was I about to make with the first two words of that sentence? Wait—what did my mom just say?) that I claimed was multitasking has responded much better to unitasking.
How to be present
We all know what it feels like to be “phubbed” (phone snubbed). You’re talking to someone and her phone dings—she starts replying to that text while trying to maintain the conversation with you as she looks up briefly from her phone. “Mmhmm!” You don’t feel like you’re actually being heard. I’m sure I have given loved ones a similar feeling when trying to converse with me from the kitchen island as I look in the cupboard for snacks or pop my head into the fridge, searching for something to drink.
Don’t get me wrong—I’d love to be able to do dishes at a kitchen island while chatting with my kids someday. But, by living in a non-open-concept home, when guests come over, we take our coffee to the living room to chat or we converse around the dining table as we eat. I’ve found I’m able to be so much more present when I’m sitting across from my friend, eating dinner at our table, or snuggled up on the couch with my husband and some red wine. In either case, I’m not embarrassed by or tempted to do the dirty dishes in the sink—out of sight, out of mind. Separate rooms also force me to have the food or drinks ready to take to another room, rather than fumbling around the kitchen as I try to distractedly engage in conversation.
Further, separate rooms have encouraged my husband and me to always sit down for dinner rather than trying to eat on-the-go, while watching TV, or while we’re still cooking or cleaning. We appreciate this daily tradition as a time to catch up with one another, undistracted by TV, our dirty kitchen, or our phones. We now look forward to continuing this simple tradition as our family grows. (Family dinners are actually one of the best things parents can do for their kids.) Not having an open-concept space has allowed me to give loved ones and guests the gift of my presence, and it encourages others to do the same.
The importance of boundaries
Many of us have probably heard not to do work in bed in order to sleep better. Similarly, if you’re working from home, it’s a good idea to keep your workspace at home physically separate. The Harvard Business Review’s HBR Guide to Being More Productive warns, “Unless you are careful to maintain boundaries, you may start to feel like you’re always at work and losing a place to come home to.” And I’ve found that setting and maintaining boundaries is equally important in tackling most of life’s tasks and daily occurrences.
Environmental cues and physical boundaries help us know what the appropriate task is for a given time or space. For example, we are unconsciously yet mentally prepared for sleep by the dark, the quiet, and a bed we associate with “sleep” rather than work. Just as we help the brain know it’s time to sleep by keeping computers out of the bed, we help the brain know it’s time to eat by sitting down at the table. A home with separate rooms provides built-in physical boundaries in which each room is its own environment. In this kind of home, my wires don’t get crossed. My mind knows that in my kitchen, I cook and clean. In my dining room, I eat and converse at meal times. In my living room, I can relax with family or watch TV at night. At my desk, I write and work. The physical boundaries allow me to enjoy the appropriate activity (cook, eat, relax) because my brain knows what to expect in each space.
Even while I'm living in a space Joanna Gaines would want to open up, I've found that there are real benefits to a non-open-concept floor plan. If you’ve lived in more confined spaces, I bet you’ve experienced some similar outcomes, whether you’ve realized it or not. So while you’re pining for (and pinning) an open-concept layout, take advantage of the benefits gained from not having one.