How and Why to Build ‘White Space’ Into Your Day

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We live in a more is more culture. This extends beyond material possessions and into our daily lives and schedules. Our kids are busy after school every day with soccer, martial arts, and piano lessons – because more is more. We multi-task with pride – because more is more. All this more-ing takes a toll on us. Our time is suddenly scarce, and with that comes a host of surprising problems.

No matter your job, today’s technology helps us get more done. We answer a quick email while finishing up a spreadsheet while also confirming our kid’s dentist appointment. While we may be ticking things off our to-do lists at a frenetic pace, is it good this way?

We may feel like we’re accomplishing a lot when we don’t waste time with down time, but what are we sacrificing? Instead of just driving to work, we use that time to also call the mechanic, confirm our appointments, finally return that phone call to the woman who wanted a reference for our old babysitter.

We all need down time, real down time. That’s time when nothing else is scheduled. Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, in their book “Scarcity” explain how “time scarcity” – the result of being constantly over-scheduled and busy – has a direct negative impact on our cognitive and imaginative powers.

This excerpt from their book explains what Mullainathan and Shafir mean: “Because we are preoccupied by scarcity, because our minds constantly return to it, we have less mind to give to the rest of life. This is more than a metaphor. We can directly measure mental capacity or, as we call it, bandwidth. We can measure fluid intelligence, a key resource that affects how we process information and make decisions. We can measure executive control, a key resource that affects how impulsively we behave. And we find that scarcity reduces all of these components of bandwidth—it makes us less insightful, less forward-thinking, less controlled. And the effects are large.” So, being constantly busy actually makes us less smart, less attentive, less able to make decisions, remember details, and resist cookies.  

Jocelyn K. Glei is an award winning writer and podcast host whose focus is how to stay inspired, focused, and productive in our daily work. She adopts the concept of “white space” from design and applies it to our daily schedules. She explains, “In design, ‘white space’ is negative space. It’s not blank space because it has a purpose. It is balancing the rest of the design by throwing what is on the page (or the screen) into relief. The white space helps focus your visual attention.”  

Glei explains, “We need white space in our daily lives just as much as we need it in our designs because the concept carries over: If our lives are over-cluttered and over-booked, we can’t focus properly on anything. What’s more, this way of working actually shrinks our ability to think creatively.”

The point of white space is to be able to relax your mind. How one achieves this varies from person to person. Here are a few ideas that you can try: Studies have proven the positive health and wellness benefits of meditation. You don’t need to devote hours to sitting still on your floor to achieve some of these benefits. A few minutes each day of focused breathing and relaxation can boost your mood, your ability to concentrate, and even your immune system!

This doesn’t have to be a huge time commitment or massive, sweaty workout. Some yoga, simple stretches, even going for a walk around the block will release stress, clear your mind, and help you focus later. Remember, when going for that walk, leave your phone behind! And if your yoga session turns into playing with your cat? That’s cool too.

Throw the ball with your dog. Tickle your kids and play hide and seek. Call a friend for a game of tennis or basketball. However you like to play, just make sure you do it.

Various wearable devices can remind us to get up and walk around, or to stretch, sit up straight, and breathe. There are many meditation apps available, and even apps that simply show a video or falling rain or babbling brooks. Zoning out while staring at these relaxing images is exactly the kind of white space our brains need to function on all cylinders.