White Space

In laying out a newsletter or designing a website, it’s smart to include plenty of white space. Staring at wall-to-wall words and illustrations exhausts us. We can’t take it all in, so we take none of it in. We quit. We move on to an experience that’s easier on the eye and the mind.

White space on a page gives us room to think.

And white space in our schedules can accomplish the same thing.

When I ask nonprofit staff members what would make their jobs easier, they inevitably say that they need more free time. They complain about days of back-to-back meetings: staff meetings, department meetings, board meetings, and management meetings; meetings with direct reports, supervisors, clients, and community partners; meetings with funders and regulators, auditors and tenants, landlords and mayors. What’s left in their day is devoted to getting some immediate and urgent tasks done. Preparing board packets. Finishing reports. Mailing in grant requests. And, of course, answering emails (those damned emails!), which have piled up… while they were at meetings.

Most people find that there’s not enough time – enough white space – to think, reflect, and figure out where they’re going. And they crave that time.

This is more than a feel-good exercise: it’s a key to productivity. As a New York Times op-ed (“Relax! You’ll Be More Productive!”) by Tony Schwartz explains, we do our best and most productive work in 90-minute spurts. After that it’s important to stand, relax, and do something different. Remaining at your desk to hammer out another paragraph or two in a grant application over the course of the next couple of hours probably won’t get you nearly as close to your goal as if you take a stroll, shift your mind to other topics, let the creative juices flow, and return to the project refreshed and refocused.

And a change in venue is very helpful. The white space can be most effective if you can schedule it outside of the office. Go for a walk. Take a bike ride. Go to a coffee shop.

Grabbing those opportunities can be a real challenge to those of you who work in very traditional office settings, where work is thought to be something done between 8:30 and 5:00, and only when you are sitting at your desks or attending meetings. The problem is: creativity can’t be scheduled. Many studies show, in fact, that the most creative time is when you are just waking up. In that half-dreamlike state, your mind makes connections that a more fully-awake person would not allow, and those wild ideas often lead to major breakthroughs.

I encourage you to read Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works to get a better appreciation of this. Lehrer recently lost credibility because he was found to have made up quotations from Bob Dylan within that book. He’s also been labeled a self-plagiarist for publishing the same article in two different journals. I don’t excuse Lehrer’s short cuts and ethical missteps, but they don’t undermine the fascinating and well-told core thesis of the book: creativity requires that we have space to think by ourselves, along with regular, incidental, unstructured interactions with other creative people.

So seek white space! Combat the tyranny of standing weekly meetings! Demand a piece of your own schedule for thinking, for creating, for getting your thoughts together!

And to that end, I will conclude this post here, at about 60% of my blog’s usual length. Consider this my gift to you… of white space, of time, and of the chance to create.

Copyright Alan Cantor 2013. All rights reserved.

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