Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

Learning To Appreciate The White Spaces

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”.

Click here to subscribe to my blog so you can get my latest posts sent directly to your inbox.

26 Comments » | Tags: , , , , , , , | May 9, 2011 by |

  1. On May 9th, 2011 at 2:35 PM Petra said:

    First of all, I just want to say how happy I am that I stumbled across this blog. I really enjoyed reading this post and look forward to reading many more. You make some very profound statements.

    I especially liked the part where you write, '…we continue to blur the difference between being busy and being effective, between working harder and working smarter.' Making every effort to ensure that we are continually doing something throughout the work day does not always mean that we are doing it in the most productive way possible.

    You state very nicely at the end of the post how success is more about *directed* motion, not perpetual motion. It's also of key importance that we give our bodies (and minds) time to rest and recuperate. This, in turn, ensures a more optimal performance than were we to run ourselves ragged.

  2. On May 9th, 2011 at 5:46 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Petra; I'm glad you enjoyed this piece and I do hope you'll continue to check out what I share here on my blog.

  3. On May 9th, 2011 at 5:59 PM Daniel Black said:

    The mistake that a lot of people do, especially when they have just started working on a new project/business/blog is that they think that they have to work days and nights-I agree that in the initial days you have to work harder but this does not mean that you do not take some time to rest and recuperate. Taking your mind off work from time to time will help you find new sources of inspiration and creating the right mindsets for work.

  4. On May 10th, 2011 at 12:51 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Daniel,

    I think you're absolutely right that most of us have this tendency to work long hours when we start a new project, in part because of our enthusiasm for the work and the outcome we're hoping to achieve. Of course, as we all know, it's very hard to sustain that drive for very long, which invariably leads to feelings of guilt that we're not as 'productive' as we were at the start; that we're dragging our heels and the project is suffering as a result.

    That's why I think leaving ourselves these gaps in our days will help, as it will allow us either to shift our attention to other tasks/responsibilities or even simply taking a break to reflect on the work done so far to evaluate whether it's leading us in the desired direction or whether some course-corrections or choices need to be made to ensure you attain the desired goal.

    Thanks Daniel for adding these excellent points to the discussion.

  5. On May 9th, 2011 at 7:37 PM Gwyn Teatro said:

    Tanveer, I love the notion of the blank wall here and the message it sends. And for all the reasons you outline, I see the need for white spaces too. When we fill up every nook and cranny of our lives, there is no room for “flow” and, to me, that feels claustrophobic.
    With respect to your blank wall, I’d be tempted to purchase a picture frame, just the frame, and hang it on the wall, just to remind me to take the time to appreciate the “white spaces” in my life.

  6. On May 10th, 2011 at 1:03 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Oh, I love that idea, Gwyn! That would definitely be a conversation piece, if not also a great way to spur on a dialogue on how others are ensuring they respect keeping those white spaces blank.

    Glad you enjoyed this piece, Gwyn; grateful as always for your contributions to the discussion.

  7. On May 10th, 2011 at 8:17 AM Jim Matorin said:

    In the brief time we have known each other Tanveer, you know I enjoy my green space (a.k.a. white space) by taking timeout, weather permitting and going to the park to do nothing (people watch). Part of white space also is unplugging. Yesterday I was amused when I read a post in a LI discussion group how a new study indicates people are more productive in the office if employers would unblock their access to FB, YouTube, etc. so they can take timeout. To me timeout is also unplugging.

    Daniel – I like your point re: new projects. We all need to learn to pace ourselves and value our white space in the process.

  8. On May 10th, 2011 at 2:15 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    That's an excellent point you bring up, Jim, concerning that whole issue of businesses blocking various social media sites so people can't access them while at work. In most cases, the common argument given for doing this is to ensure employees don't "waste time" browsing or conversing on these sites when they should be working. However, as you pointed out, a more important reason for limiting the amount of time spent on such sites is to allow us – and in particular our brains – time to turn off and tune out.

    This reminds me of another study I'm currently reading where they found that a common trait amongst successful people is not working for long periods of time, but instead working with an intense focus in short bursts throughout the day. It's not hard to imagine what these successful people are doing with the rest of their time,

    On a side note, I have to say that one of the aspects I truly enjoy about writing for my blog is the opportunity to meet and build relationships with wonderful, giving and wise people who, lucky for me, happen to stumble across my blog. I'm glad to count you, Jim among those people.

    Thanks again for adding your thoughts to this discussion.

  9. On May 10th, 2011 at 8:49 AM Bob VanGorden said:

    I have learned that if you don’t leave some “white space” in your life, in your day –you are most likely underperforming.

    Bob VanGorden
    bvg consulting

  10. On May 10th, 2011 at 2:27 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Bob,

    It certainly seems counter-intuitive to today's current always-on, always-available world thanks to the greater connectivity we have now compared to 5-10 years ago. And yet, like you I've found that working from a vantage point of perpetual motion often leads to working to keep busy instead of working to achieve a specific goal or purpose.

    Thanks for sharing your experience with this, Bob.

  11. On May 11th, 2011 at 6:11 PM Ellen Weber said:

    What a wonderful post Tanveer, and you address issues that plague many today since so many media venues get at people that little time for reflection remains. The 5th of 5 Mita Brainpowered stages is REFLECTION – and your post shows more than any – why that 5th stage is so necessary! Thanks! The shift from reacting to reflecting is one that Mita brainpowered approaches lives daily:-)

    It's not always the one that makes CNN, nor is it bought out by MicroSoft.

    Yet it is the tiger of the coming era – and I see you at many of the helms to make it happen! Thanks!

  12. On May 12th, 2011 at 1:17 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Ellen! That's very kind of you to say.

    I fully agree with you that there's a definite change on the way – if it's not already here in some circles – in terms of favouring the ability to quickly react to putting out fires to reflecting on where things are headed to minimize the number of fires which might erupt.

    Of course, the challenge will be whether we're willing to take a step back from continuously checking our inboxes, Blackberry, Facebook and Twitter streams to see what's going on, and focus instead on where we need to go next. Hopefully, by pointing out the benefits of welcoming and penciling in these white spaces in our days, more of us will aim for the latter instead of settling for the former.

    By the way, Ellen, as soon as I started writing about the neuroscience behind how we approach decision-making, I knew I had to draw this piece to your attention. I'm glad to see you enjoyed it.

    Thanks again, Ellen, for stopping by and sharing your insights into this topic. Appreciate it.

  13. On May 12th, 2011 at 4:14 AM Delena Silverfox said:

    Ah, the white spaces in life: on the walls, in our minds, in our time…

    How and where do we learn that every bit of our lives must be filled to every smallest corner? If we have free time that was unplanned, we almost don't know what to do with ourselves and find some way to fill it. And even then, that free time we *do* plan for we spend filling it anyway. The same goes for blank space on the wall: why is there such a need to fill it all, or fill the silence, or fill the time…


  14. On May 12th, 2011 at 1:33 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Delena,

    I used to think our obsession with filling in those gaps in our workdays was a modern infliction brought on by the computer age; that instead of profitting from how computers were allowing us to streamline our efforts so we could enjoy more free time, we were now starting to compete with them, trying to match their pace and approach to peforming multiple tasks at the same time.

    However, I recently read a lecture Peter Drucker gave about 40-50 years ago where he criticized how we were so busy being consumed with reacting to everything that we had little time or energy to reflect on how those efforts contributed to our overall goals.

    This is why I think what we're dealing with here is less an external issue than an internal one. Namely, as I pointed out above, that we're allowing our reactive brain to basically lead us by the nose, instead of relying more on our prefrontal cortex to help us take a step back and assess which route is the best course to take.

    There's no question we have it within ourselves to appreciate and benefit from these white spaces. We just need to be more deliberate in our practice in respecting and creating such spaces for us to reap the benefit.

    Thanks again Delena for adding your thoughts to the discussion.

  15. On May 12th, 2011 at 1:18 PM Laura Hunter said:

    Hi Tanveer,
    I discovered your concept of "white space" a few years ago. I love white spaces and regard them as an important part of every day. My white spaces occur when I am walking my dogs in my back fields, riding my bike, sitting in my garden swing (although that happens too rarely!) I find those are the times when I come up with my best ideas. They just pop up, probably because my thoughts are not specific and focussed. Most of my blog posts are written in those white spaces and not in front of my computer. Of course sometimes I don't have to fill the space with anything but an appreciation of the beautiful place in which I live – for an overachiever that is an important concept!

  16. On May 12th, 2011 at 2:26 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Laura,

    You bring up an important point about how to go about taking full advantage of these white spaces. To gain the benefit of these white spaces, we need to move ourselves away from our desks and offices, where there are too many 'distractions' that can very easily cut into your time for reflection and rest. There's no question that this isn't easy, especially if you work for a boss who insists you put in X number of hours of 'face time' at your desk. But this is why we need to reassess what's the purpose behind our actions – is it simply to ensure a state of perpetual motion, or is our goal to find the most effective means to achieve our shared goal?

    Although the answer might seem obvious, the fact that so many still opt for the former shows that it's not so obvious as we might think.

    Thanks again, Laura, for sharing your own experiences with this and highlighting this critical point to appreciating these white spaces.

  17. On May 12th, 2011 at 10:46 PM Theresa Torres said:

    Hi, Tanveer! This is an interesting topic. I'm glad I found your post. White space for me is sleep. I've read in an article that during sleep, unimportant details gets filtered out and we are left with those things that we are focused on. I find that I am more productive when I am feeling refreshed and recharged and new ideas just keep coming in.

  18. On May 13th, 2011 at 6:17 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Theresa,

    Certainly, there's plenty of research which has demonstrated the importance of getting a good night's sleep to remain effective. Of course, it's also important that we also make time during our days to rest as well, opting not for a continuous push, but a number of bursts of activity spread throughout the day.

  19. On May 15th, 2011 at 7:10 PM John Winson said:

    Hi Tanveer, first off thanks for writing such a beautiful article.

    I believe we all need "white space" in our life. It’s important that we respect and enjoy those white spaces. They are integral part of everyone life and it’s there in life for a reason. Life doesn't have to be about keeping yourself busy all the time or being able to do more in less time to create more time for other tasks. By being occupied always with task and chores we are not giving time to our personal life, to do simple and beautiful thing like smelling flowers, seeing sunrise and sunset, counting stars, watch children play on gardens. Just don't fill these white spaces and try to enjoy them, and you will find it’s soothing and beautiful.

  20. On May 16th, 2011 at 1:26 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks John; I appreciate the kind words and I'm glad you enjoyed this piece. Taking the time to enjoy those simple pleasures you mention is a wonderful reminder of the other aspects of our lives that give us a sense of meaning and purpose.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts on this piece.

  21. On May 20th, 2011 at 3:30 PM Mike Wood said:

    Like your advice! There never seems to be enough "white space" in my world even when I account for it 🙂

  22. On May 21st, 2011 at 11:13 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Mike; glad you enjoyed this piece and found it helpful for creating some white spaces in your own life.

  23. On September 27th, 2011 at 4:09 PM Ana said:

    I remember the psychology lessons about work and learning, where we were thought that there were "plateaus" in those processes. You can go ahead only for a while, and then your brain needs to take a break and just…well…do nothing. You can push it only as far, but soon enough it will start "working" on its own.

    Therefore, those white spaces are simply necessary.

    Of course, I go do the other extreme. The walls of my office and my room are completely white and bare.

  24. On September 27th, 2011 at 6:42 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Absolutely. We all know intuitively that all our machinery and devices require regular maintenance. Even our computers require downtime to run scans and checks to keep them running optimally. It's unfortunate that we still don't appreciate that even our minds require such periodic breaks in order for us to remain effective and alert.

  25. On March 6th, 2012 at 11:31 PM Natasha said:

    What a great analogy, I am going to pass this post on. Whenever I look at my schedule now I will remember to use the white spaces well and not just cram in more work for the sake of keeping busy. Thanks Tanveer!

  26. On March 7th, 2012 at 10:49 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    My pleasure, Natasha. Glad to hear this piece has helped. Sadly, I suspect that this is becoming increasingly harder to do, unless we commit to forming habits today that serve to remind us of why keeping these white spaces clear are essential to our productivity and well-being.

Your Comment: