A few months ago, I decided to update my office space in response to the growing needs of my business. One of these changes involved rearranging one of the office walls to accommodate a new whiteboard and bulletin board for brainstorming and keeping track of client projects. Although they’ve proven to be welcome additions to my productivity arsenal, they left me with a problem – the best layout for these two items left a very noticeable gap on that wall. A white space that looked more intentional than merely a consequence for how I chose to place these wall hangings on that wall.
At first, I decided that I would leave that space as is, waiting until some future need required the addition of some new wall hanging that would help me manage and grow my business. After a few weeks, though, the presence of this white space began to bother me. It was making me feel as though I wasn’t maximizing my new office layout to ensure that there were little or no dead spaces found within the room.
So, my first thought was simply to fill this gap with some type of artwork or maybe even a frame with one of those motivational quotes you find in so many offices these days. As such, I started to wander around various art shops, looking for some print or art piece that would help to fill in this gap on the wall.
Although there were many choices, nothing really seemed to fit and yet I still felt compelled to find something to help fill in this space. At one point while searching for ideas of what I could hang on that part of the wall, my wife looked at me and asked ‘would it really be such a problem to just leave the space blank?’. It was in that moment that I realized that there wasn’t really a problem here. Rather, all I had done was create one of out this misguided notion that leaving blank spaces on the wall left my office in an incomplete state.
Of course, how we perceive these white spaces not only impacts our sense of decorating aesthetics. In our day to day activities, it’s also easy to feel like you need to do more – to take on more projects or assignments – because of the presence of these white spaces in our calendars. And now thanks to the burgeoning use of smartphones and the always-on/always-active social networks, we’re feeling an even greater need to fill in those white spaces with as much activity as possible, to ensure that we’re maximizing the use of our time and resources.
In this light, it’s not surprising to see the escalation of ‘busyness’ in our offices and organizations, as we continue to blur the difference between being busy and being effective, between working harder and working smarter.
There are in fact several benefits to throttling down our efforts to cram in more ‘productivity’ into the limited number of hours in our workday, and creating instead these white spaces between the various tasks/issues that are on our plate. Here are a few that came to mind thanks to my own experience in trying to fill in those white spaces:
1. Provides opportunities for contemplation and review
One of the obvious advantages of creating these white spaces in your day is that it will ensure you have time to reflect on past and present decisions. Granted, there will be days where a meeting gets cancelled or you finish a task early and those moments can certainly be used as time for contemplation and review.
However, by intentionally creating these white spaces in your day, you’ll help to foster this behaviour as a natural response to these moments, as opposed to the more prevailing attitude that we need to keep ourselves busy at all times.
2. Shifts our decision-making from reflexive reactions to measured, deliberate responses
What separates our brains from other animals is a section called the prefrontal cortex. This section of our brain is often associated with what neuroscientists refer to as the “executive function”; that is, our ability to organize and prioritize tasks, managing our emotional state, and our ability to anticipate outcomes and adapt to changing conditions.
Thanks to our shift to an always-on, always-engaged communication style, what’s happening is that we’re starting to rely more on the reactive animal brain (what Seth Godin likes to refer to as our “lizard brain”). Indeed, according to management professor Richard L. Daft, we only spend about 2-10% of the day using the “executive function” part of our brain; the rest of the time, we’re actually relying on that reactive part which causes us to jump about from one task to the other. I imagine it’s this part of our brain which is also behind the current obsession with multitasking, even though numerous studies have proven it to be an ineffective approach to productivity.
Through the addition of white spaces in their workday, leaders can ensure they shift from simply reacting to all the distractions and calls for their attention and focus instead on one key task, thereby encouraging the use of their prefrontal cortex and not their lizard brain to help them determine the best course of action for their organization.
3. Allows you to address those unanticipated issues without penalizing other tasks
One of the things that’s getting harder to manage are those unexpected issues or problems which inevitably arise during the workday. It’s not necessarily because processes have become more complex as it is that we pack so much into our day that it’s getting difficult to shift gears in order to address these new problems.
Having these white spaces in your workday allows you to shift your attention to dealing with these emergencies, knowing that you have these reserved blocks of time where you can resume or catch up with the other tasks that had to be put on hold to deal with these more pressing issues.
4. Even machines need downtime for maintenance/repair
If you own a car, you know that performing regular maintenance and check-ups is important to ensuring your car continues to perform at optimal levels. There’s never any question about the necessity of performing these repairs because we realize it’s critical to keeping our vehicle working at its peak performance.
Ironically, while we have no problem appreciating the importance of providing regular maintenance for our various machinery and electronic devices, we don’t put an equal level of priority on providing such maintenance for ourselves. Sure, we all agree and want more time to relax, unwind, and sleep. And yet sadly, it’s the first thing we willingly give up in order to address the pressing demands of today’s workplace.
By creating these white spaces, leaders can ensure that they not only make time for themselves, but that they serve as role models for their employees regarding the importance of taking regular breaks to recharge themselves and with it, the level of productivity and efficiency they bring to the team.
In the end, we need to understand the importance of shifting from simply reacting to reflecting on what’s going on around us. We need to understand that we need these white spaces to help provide us with some context, if not also a greater ability to appreciate what’s being said and done.
We need to let go of that idea that to be in perpetual motion is a sign of progress and growth, and redefine our understanding of success as being more about directed motion – activity that’s being done for a purpose and reason.
As Benjamin Franklin once said “Never confuse motion for action”.