I was recently asked to speak at an event for the upcoming International Womens Day.
I initially said yes. I love doing speaking engagements and it was for a great organisation and great cause, plus if I’m honest my ego is always flattered a little when little old me is asked to talk and talk about topics I’m passionate about. Why on earth would I say no?!
Ah but then this little narrative of concern started in my head “are you sure you are able to do this?”
You see the date of the event was slap bang in the middle of a period where I had set aside time that required my full energy devoted to it. When I blocked this out in my calendar, I’d made a pact with myself to keep this container protected at all costs. Then I got this opportunity that sounded cool and good, plus as a people pleaser I don’t like saying no, basically I was torn and couldn’t decide – yay or nay.
The voice of concern in my head was reminding me of this, and so the narrative turned into a dialogue.
YAY voice: “Yeah but it’s just one talk it won’t take much time or energy.”
NAY voice: “Remember you promised – no other commitments.”
YAY voice: “If you keep turning down speaking engagements people will stop asking you.”
NAY voice: “Is this really the most important thing for you to focus on?”
YAY voice: “But you love doing this kind of work and it’s for a great cause.”
NAY voice: “You will have to make a trade off – what’s it gonna be.”
..and so, I did what I do when I can’t decide on something. I sat with it for a while.
A couple of days maybe – however long takes for answer to pop up. It’s not very scientific – I simply put the question out to the universe, or you could say my subconscious mind, and provided it space to let it bubble away in the pond of my thoughts and see what floats to the surface.
This to me is one of the ways mindfulness in action shows up in my life.
Ponder a question or a tricky problem for a while, then let it go, provide space and notice what pops up.
Don’t tug at it or force it. Don’t strive too hard for the answer or cling too tightly to a point of view. Just be patient and sit with it in the background, floating out there in the ether. Give it a white space, time that on face value has no purpose. It’s not searching for an answer – it’s giving space for the answer (that’s actually already there) to come to the surface.
So that’s exactly what I gave myself, a little white space to let it settle. Then 2 days later the decision came into my head loud and clear.
That decision was to turn the engagement down. However, in the space I’d given myself, my subconscious had also come up with the idea to refer them on to a colleague who would be perfect for the gig. As it was, the colleague was available and keen to do it, so I referred the client on to my colleague. The client was delighted at the prospect they didn’t have to search elsewhere and was grateful to me for providing an alternative. My colleague was excited to do the talk and will do an amazing job. I didn’t feel I’d let anyone down, quite the opposite and had kept to my promise to solely focus my energy elsewhere. It was a win win, with happy campers all round.
This is the magic that some white space can provide.
Make time for White Space
White space could very well be the best time you spend doing nada. It literally is time devoted to doing nothing (shock horror), ie not doing. It gives your brain a little downtime and in that downtime parts of your brain get activated in a very helpful way.
It starts to process problems and questions with a renewed creativity and confidence. It joins dots that don’t otherwise have the opportunity to join when we crowd the mind with constant input and activity.
The problem is that in our busy, go go go, on on on, do do do (mmm sounds like song by the Police) lives, we feel the need and expectation to fill every slot of time with doing stuff, but really, it’s the space that provides the solution, the doing just puts the solution into action.
Have faith and experiment with white space
When I make suggestions to the leaders I work with around creating whitespace in their day they literally look at me like I’m bonkers, like it would be more realistic to ask them to give up their first born, or possibly sacrifice a limb.
It’s pretty simple to do though, albeit it is not easy to release our white-knuckle grip on autopilot driven ‘doing-ness’ (yes, I made that word up).
Maybe have a think about how things are currently going for you and asking yourself:
- Are you faced with lots of decisions that are often hard to make?
- Is it important for you to solve problems and / or be creative in your work?
- Do you rarely block space in your diary to do nothing – I mean N O T H I N G?
- Is your mind constantly processing input and information?
- Do you often get overwhelmed with the amount of choices, decisions and tasks you are faced with on weekly/ daily / hours basis?
If you answered yes to any of those questions then white space is for you. Even though it may seem the most counter intuitive solution (and believe me it will likely feel like that). Have faith and go with it, see it as a little experiment. After all the continued evolution of mankind pretty much relied on experimentation so it’s worth a try.
How to create white space in your day
If you are wondering how to put white space in your day – here are some tips and ideas that might help.
- Block out some time in your calendar every day that has no agenda, 30mins is ideal but if that’s unachievable maybe do blocks of 10 minutes or even 5.
- You could indeed use that time to meditate but you don’t have to – you could go for a walk, stare out a window, swim laps, drink a cup of tea or even doodle, whatever is your jam, the point is to have no point.
- The number one rule is NO input during white space time, avoid consuming information– this means NO phone, NO social media, NO podcasts, NO reading, NO online browser shopping because that is all still input.
- If finding structured time is hard then maybe look at opportunities in your day that lend themselves to providing white space, for example your commute to work, walking the dog, standing in a long queue waiting for coffee, however note that if you use that time to review work, emails, Slack, your Twitter or LinkedIn feed or listen to podcasts that is NOT whitespace because, yep, it’s input.
- Build in short white space breaks during blocks of time you may have devoted to do focused or creative work, this will prime your brain to work at its best in the focused spaces in-between. Again, though they need to be true white space, no phone checking (in fact put your phone away it’s just too tempting).
- Have a journal or note pad handy after your white space time as you may find some useful thoughts, ideas, decisions come floating up to the surface. Writing them down at that moment is great to ensure they are noted without giving your mind the stress of having to log and remember something extra for later on.
- Trial deleting apps on your phone that are most distracting and unproductive as they may derail your best white space efforts. For example I’ve recently deleted social media apps from my phone, because if they aren’t there I don’t feel tempted to check.
Oh and in case you were wondering you have to be awake. Sleeping is not white space, there is highly important stuff going on when you sleep for sure, so don’t skimp on it, but it’s not white space. Interestingly providing white space when you are awake may also help you sleep better, as some one who has suffered from insomnia I can say this with some first hand experience.
Try it and notice what happens?
Not convinced by this white space malarkey? How about trying it for a few weeks and just notice what you notice. As I mentioned earlier this is in itself a form of practicing mindfulness. Every moment, every day, is a new opportunity to try something new, particularly if how you have been doing things isn’t working out for you in some way (ie you answered yes to any of those questions above).
“If you always do what you’ve always done you will always get what you always had.” – anon
The mind is a wonderful tool but like anything it needs downtime, time for the sediment of busy stuff and unhelpful thoughts to settle, so we can clear the muddied waters of our mind and see what bobs to the surface.
Providing your mind with white space is literally like sprinkling fairy dust on the brain. You may be amazed at what ideas and solutions pop up as result.
Lotty Roberts is a forward thinker in New Zealand in the field of mindful change, leadership and workplace cultures, with over 20 years’ experience in a corporate setting, delivering and leading others through large scale change and transformation. Lotty has now founded her business – ‘Mind U’, where she uses her hands on experience and knowledge as a leader, change expert and registered mindfulness teacher to help organisations build the culture, mindset and capability to mindfully lead and navigate themselves through change.