What if not every moment in life had a purpose? In fact, what if we set aside moments whose purpose was no purpose at all? In short, what if we created more white space around ourselves?
Awhile back, I was working with an executive coach. I had changed jobs recently and was having trouble wrapping my head around an idea. There could be times at work when my entire day wasn’t booked with meetings and responding to emails from other people. In fact, that was the norm for a whole period of time. My first reaction was disbelief. My second was somewhere between not wanting to tell anyone my secret and asking, perhaps from a feeling of guilt, for someone to give me more work.
“That just sounds like white space,” said my coach.
Her notion was that white space is the area in which the mind does its most inspired work, whether you work in a creative field or not. I decided I wanted to explore the idea some more. Turns out white space is a well-known phenomenon in design. It’s more than just what something isn’t — more words or graphics on the page. Instead, it’s the deliberate construction of emptiness around the material that matters most. Take a look at Google’s home page sometime. It’s a design choice that started almost by accident, but became part of the search engine’s phenomenal success. Only the box matters. In short, it’s minimalism.
What works for web design also works for the brain, and that’s what my coach was talking about.
Preserving white space isn’t a matter of instinct and doesn’t feel natural to me at all. It’s something I feel like I have to force open, like using a shoe tree or a tile spacer. I’m the guy who tidies up the kitchen counter while he’s waiting for his family to get ready to leave the house. The guy who’s pulling weeds in the front yard while he’s waiting for a ride. In short, the guy who doesn’t typically just… wait… for anything. But in the past few weeks, I have made white space a priority.
Whether I’m trying to reclaim my eyeballs from social media, my nightstand from clutter or my schedule from commitments I shouldn’t be keeping, I’m working hard to create and maintain white space. So far, results have been good.
A five-minute meditation session in the morning and a glass of cold water with lemon before coffee has help me set the tone for weekdays instead of diving right into email and overnight news headlines. I see more clearly when I open the day’s calendar for the first time. I’ve solved a couple of nagging work problems in my brain while standing and waiting for the train instead of burying myself in my phone.
And then there was the most striking and meta-example of this phenomenon. I’d been carrying around the task of finishing up our summer vacation planning for several days, never quite knocking that one off the list. It took a moment of white space to be able to address the situation thoughtfully and creatively enough to realize what we needed was more white space in our summer! Too many trips, too close together. So that’s how we decided to save Maine for next year instead.
It is playing against type for the calendar- and task-oriented among us. But I think unsubscribing from the culture of busyness and making room for the unexpected is how the magical things tend to happen. Just this week, our total lack of planning for our 16th wedding anniversary had Lindy and me running around Dave and Buster’s playing video games like giddy teenagers for a couple hours. And a few extra minutes after XY’s birthday party in a town square captivated a dozen kids when a street performer with a juggling act stopped by.
Making room for white space… do you do it? And if so, how?
Also published on Medium.