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Raising execution through reclaiming white space

Juliet Funt

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Every entrepreneur has only a select handful of true priorities — and they'll do anything to move them forward. But when talented folks are lost in unnecessary emails, meetings, paperwork and other low-value tasks, they crawl toward these pivotal objectives. In this high-energy session, you will learn cutting-edge tactics that combat this draining scenario, and you’ll begin to understand the critical difference between activity and true productivity. You will also learn how to create more white space and improve your creativity, strategy and thoughtfulness.

For those beautiful, youthful faces staring back at me, Candid Camera was a little like Punk’d back when taste was in style. It was a long time ago.

Now, here’s the truth. The truth is that men more easily than women—it’s true—do tolerate silence within conversation. Now, in conversation there is a difference as to how we relate to small gaps and interstitial time. But in life and in work and in workflow, all of us are now becoming less comfortable with the pause, with the open moments in our work and in our life, that we allow to remain unfilled and ready for whatever may come. And the reason is that our connection is constant and our minds are buzzing and our schedules are overflowing, and the pause is becoming a distant memory.

Now, at work we are progressively more used to seamlessly connected activity. But the truth is that, if we step back, we see that our time is no less than under attack. Emails and meetings and ever-present smartphones are gobbling it up, and, consequently, the global workforce is so fried, it belongs in the food court of a county fair. And innovation and creativity, big picture thinking, strategy, introspection, the true fuel of a relationship-based industry wither before the false god of constant business. And, at home, families begin to struggle to connect in this environment because grownups are multitasking during dinner. So kids, lonely, go off to find a warm screen of their own. That’s the troubling portrait of what we call the “culture of insatiability,” where nothing that we do is ever enough.

This driving insatiable business culture turns the average workday into a sprint of reactive busyness eking out the pause, the time to think. And it’s costing US business about $300 billion a year in absenteeism, in “presentee-ism” (this is such a fun one; this is when you’re there, but you are actually not there), in turnover, in turnover intention, in reduced engagement, in “mis-created” opportunity, and even if we didn’t have any of those taxes, it would still be a huge problem, because when talented people don’t have time to think, all business suffers.

Now, I challenge you to try to remember: When is the last time you caught somebody thinking where you work? And what would you do if you just came around the corner and somebody was just . . . Would you call a paramedic? Would you tweet it? Would you alert the media? We have so little comfort with the posture of thoughtfulness that it would be an anomaly. But the truth is that thinking is what changes everything. Every goal that you have, every relational goal, every growth goal will be turbocharged by the process of thoughtfulness.

Now, instead of thoughtfulness, what most folks typically choose is exertion. They trade fuel. Instead of the fuel of thoughtfulness, they put the pedal to the metal as fast and hard as humanly possible. And maybe some version of the following will be specifically familiar to you: You wake up in the morning; you hit the snooze button; you sleep for five more minutes; you’re up; you shower, brush, get into the kitchen looking for breakfast, maybe scrambled eggs, maybe French toast. Ha, ha, yeah right. You get into the car; you’ve got a PowerBar in one hand, a cell phone in the other, and you’re driving with your knees; you get into the office, and you begin with your morning mantra, “I will make the stagecoach proud.” You check into teamwork, but today’s news is three weeks old, so you move on from that and you check your inbox; it turns out that yesterday there was a mass email distribution from a coworker announcing her engagement; one guy sent back the single word “Aww” in a reply to all, then everybody jumped on him, and now you are in email jail from the resulting correspondence, and you are locked out; you will deal with that later. So you go to a meeting and another meeting and another meeting, another meeting, another meeting, and finally a lunch conference call in which you have to spend the entire time listening to the typing and sandwich eating of the one person who forgot to hit “mute”; you can’t concentrate anyway because of all the people in the meeting IM-ing you during the meeting about the meeting; suddenly you get a message from your mom who has learned how to text; she said that she saw Apple Pay on a commercial, and she’s trying to figure out how to install it, and she thought that you could help; you text back, “Mom, please don’t text me at work”; and you rush around here, and you rush around there, and you rush around here, and you rush around there, and, all day long, you almost pee, but somehow there is no peeing; we have no idea how it works—some sort of magical, spontaneous, reabsorption; we just go, go, go, go. All right?

And this is how we work. And this is how you’re going to manage millions and billions and billions and millions of dollars? Right? And what’s funny is that that mirage of exertion, that triumph of all those tiny, little checked-off boxes, distracts us just enough from realizing that we are not achieving heroic wins, that we are not present in our relational business, that we’re not able to lift up and out to truly look at strategy, right? So this is the problem.

Now, what’s really funny about our work is we go into companies, and we’re sort of like the stranger on the train, the stranger on the plane. People tell us all sorts of things that they won’t tell each other, that they won’t tell their coworkers. And, as we spend time doing different initiatives, we get to know the pain that this kind of exertion creates.

We tend to divide it into three categories. We call them the “QQS deficits.” QQS is quantity, quality, and sustainability. Now, a company with a quantity deficit has the problem of too much work and too few humans. This is a place where work is spilling over into evenings and weekends. Perhaps there are complaints and constant conversations about head count. There’s just no way to fit it in. That’s a quantity problem. A quality deficit is where the finest quality work begins to slip because of the nature of this overload. This is where those with a commitment to really elevated standards are starting to have to choose between excellence and getting by because there is just too much to do. And, then, there is sustainability, which is really the subtlest of all of them, and this is when maybe they’re hanging on by their fingertips by quality and quantity, but everybody is collectively doubting the longevity of the model. “How long can we work this way? How long can we push this way? How long can we drive people when they’re doing an 11:00 p.m. shift every single night after their kids go to bed?”

How long can we ignore the fact that, in 2005, one in seven potential hired workers was concurrently looking for a new job while in the job. And now it’s one in four, because people have more flexibility. And these QQS profiles have a cost to them. One of the conversations that I’m going to coach you on is about operationalizing the content we talk about. No speech can ever change behavior because that’s not what it’s for; speeches are to give you an idea.

If you want to change behavior, you have to go home and try to operationalize this by having conversations, by talking to others, by creating structure. And, as you do that, one of the most important tools in your little tool kit is going to be quantification. Everything I talk about we’re going to come back to over and over and over to how we would quantify this, because that is how we get traction to make change.

So I want to quantify an example of this kind of waste from the exertion that I’m talking about. Let’s say you take an $80,000-per-year employee. This means that the employee makes $40 per hour. And there’s a formula that says that everybody should return triple their value to the company every hour. So, if you are worth $40 per hour that equals $120 per hour. Now, that means that every minute you take is $2 per minute. Let’s look at some bit of low-value activity, some small thing that is part of that overload, like cc emails.

Let’s say we only took away 10 minutes of cc emails per person. That’s the only change we’re going to make to alleviate your overload initially. We just made $20, right? From one person—$20. But we do it every weekday for one year, and we make $5,000, and we do it for a company of 10,000 people, and it’s a $50 million annual intervention from just getting a little bit less casual about “We have too many cc’s, too many meetings; that’s the way it is.” If we can break that casualness a little bit, and then start quantifying it, very, very exciting things can happen.

OK, so where are we in the evolution of overload? We started a long time ago. We were less overloaded. We got more overloaded. People now ask me with terror in their eyes, “Is it possible that we can actually go further? Is it possible we can be more tech-addicted, that we can become more overloaded in the future?”

Here is where I think we are. You know in a Wile E. Coyote cartoon that moment when he runs off the cliff, and then there is this moment, this singular moment in time, where he just kind of hangs in midair, and he has almost a moment of choice where he can scramble back onto the cliff or just fall to the riverbed below? That’s where I think we are.

I think we’re at a moment of choice where we can throw in the towel, and we can all collectively say, “OK, work has an element of torture to it, and that’s just the way it’s going to be forever; I’m always going to be this crazed and busy and overloaded.” Or we can begin to question the casualness around that paradigm and say, “Ah! There might be a different way to do this.” And that is what I’m here to tell you about.

The different way centers around a respect for something called “white space.” So what is white space? White space is a strategic pause taken between activities. It is the open, flexible, fluid, beautiful time that used to lurk in between your busy, busy tasks before they became so seamlessly connected. It is the time for strategy, introspection, thoughtfulness, creativity, innovation, all in this supposed pause.

And what’s fascinating is, white space is a pause in your schedule, but it’s far from empty. In fact, if you took an MRI, and you scanned your brain with it, you would actually find that, during this supposed pause, you would see amazing, amazing complicated activity in the default neural network of your mind, in the executive center, and you would see activity that has been linked to introspection, memory, creativity, insight, all in a moment where it feels like a pause.

So the name came from looking at the literal white space on your calendar, your day planner, and realizing that on the days where there was more of this literal white space, everything was different—that we spoke to people differently, that we worked differently, that we felt more vital. And one of the fears, I think, for busy people—especially busy women, because we take on more than any busy man could ever take on due to our, well, there’s a lot of “due to’s”—and the one place where I would tell you that it’s exceptionally difficult for women is that we have a perception of responsibility that always extends beyond whatever it is that we are touching, and we tend to just continue to breach the walls of that boundary over and over again, taking on more and more and more. And I think that the gentlemen do a little less of that. I think that when they take thoughtful, creative time, or recuperative time, they simply feel less guilty. Those are the only two differences.

But we are going to talk a little bit about how to get some of this white space time. And you might think, Oh gosh, now I have to find white space. It’s another thing to do like flossing and the gym, and now I have to make some white space. And it isn’t actually like that at all, because if we locked the doors to your office right now, you would already have all the white space you need; its already there, but it’s just buried under low-value activity. And all we have to do is to coach you to be more intelligent about the removal of the low-value activity, and white space naturally appears as a by-product.

So before I tell you how to get white space, the first thing we have to do is to put on our investigator’s hat. We have to go back and find out what happened to your white space in the first place, because you used to have some, and we used to have a lot more. We have to understand how it was robbed from you in order to understand how to hang on to any new white space that I teach you to acquire. So I’m going to show you just one clip from this old show that we were talking about, the Candid Camera television show, because it happens to be a fabulous visual for one of the biggest culprits, one of the biggest reasons why you have no white space. [video]

It’s an amazing clip obviously, but the social conformity that we see here is a big part of the issue. We follow and we follow and we follow. This unconscious mimicry drives a lot of the overload that you might experience. And we were even talking about it at dinner last night. I had dinner with some of your members, and some of them were saying, “I don’t even know exactly why I work so hard, why I check in on vacation when I shouldn’t, why I check email on nights and weekends. Nobody is specifically forcing me or asking me to; its internal.”

Well, it is internal, but it’s also part of the social conformity, because we follow and we follow and we follow, but we could follow in a lot of different directions. So one of the curious follow-on questions is to start to ask, “Yes, but why do we follow in the direction of overload?” Because there’s a lot of different directions. You could face in the direction of a two-hour lunch and 25 days of PTO a year—that would still be conformity, right? But we don’t tend to face in that direction.

Well, we researched this question, and we asked ourselves why it is specifically that we face in the direction of overload. We found that there are actually 33 unique sources of pressure, each cascading down, one upon the other, upon the other, upon the other, and eventually onto you, and this is why your time is under attack. And every one of those hours, from one to the other, represents a line of research, things like senior leadership behaviors, people process, team behavior, individual behavior, personality, work attitudes—there are so many different factors.

I want you to get a sense of the movement and complexity of this slide. [visual] And this is why busyness is not a simple problem. It’s also why a lot of companies throw individual, isolated interventions at their busyness and overload problem, and they don’t work. Because we do no meeting on Wednesday, we think now we have solved everything, but actually the problem itself is much more complex.

The next step is to understand what those elements of the chart comprise. [visual] What we did was to dissect them and put them into categories, and we found that there are actually four unique drivers of overload that will affect you on a daily basis in your work and your home, and we call them the “thieves of productivity.” If you dissected the chart and categorized each of them, there would be four. And the interesting thing about the thieves is that they are all actually assets. There’s something very, very counterintuitive about talking about the thieves, because you wouldn’t want to work in a company that didn’t have these, and you wouldn’t hire anybody who didn’t have these qualities, but they actually can work against us.

So here are the thieves: drive, excellence, information, and activity. Drive, excellence, information, and activity—all beautiful things, all things that fuel business relationships and growth but are easy to overgrow, because in our hyper busy age of overload, what happens is that drive becomes overdrive, and excellence becomes perfectionism, and information becomes information overload, and activity becomes frenzy. And they lure us into a faster, more surface kind of pace and cadence that reduce our overall effectiveness. This is the fascinating turnaround of the thieves. Drive, excellence, information, and activity at that point become thieves that are working against you instead of working for you.

Each of you will have different thieves that speak to you more than others. I will tell you that my greatest thief is excellence. I am a very big perfectionist and, well, I’m going to start by saying that I love perfectionists. So whoever you are out there, you and me and we, I love you, because we are responsible for so much excellence and beauty and all of the dotted i’s and crossed t’s, and it’s a beautiful, beautiful thing. And the only problem is that we kind of get a little bit too, you know, CDO, which is OCD with the letters alphabetized.

You know, we really get too tight. We get too tight. And this is the same with all of the thieves. Drive, excellence, information, and activity all have a tendency to overgrow their pots. So start taking a look as I’m talking about these, and ask yourself, Which one or maybe two or maybe all four are the thieves that pull me most out of my thoughtful time, that lure me into that kind of frenzy, low-value activity? Everyone has a value and everyone has a fault, and the question is, which one is yours?

The next question is, what do we do about it? We are in a business subjected by the thieves. Here’s what we do. We have to install filters. Now, filters are the next step in the strategic process of your adopting white space, and they are mental constructs that interrupt the automatic surrender to the thieves. They are all going to come in the form of questions.

Here are the four questions. These are called the “white space simplification questions,” and they combat the thieves in a very, very profound way, which I’ll tell you more about in a minute, but they are as follows:

  1. Is there anything I can let go of?
  2. Where is good enough good enough?
  3. What do I truly need to know?
  4. What deserves my attention?

You’ll notice that they map directly to the thieves. Drive needs to hear: “Is there anything I can let go of?” Excellence: “Where is good enough good enough?” Information: “What do I truly need to know?” Activity: “What deserves my attention?”

And I’m going to promise you this: I said that speeches don’t change behavior; only implementation changes behavior. But if you get nothing else from this, and you take a picture of these thieves and you post them on your wall, they will endlessly, bottomlessly, and nimbly continue to solve problems for you as long as you use them—because they are fantastically flexible. They work at the individual level. They work at the team level—what deserves our attention? They work at the entire organization level.

And I have to tell you that, when we were talking last night, I saw that so many of the things that you care about would map beautifully toward the kind of reductive work that these questions lead you to: putting the client first, vision and values, connecting with communities. Unless you are reductive and you get rid of the low-value tasks, how can you possibly be having high-minded goals like thinking about value, vision, community, philanthropy, others?

We talked about growing revenue, of course. You have to allow the mind to have a certain kind of capacity to do that. Managing risk and expense—the quantification I talked about earlier. There are so many of your natural priorities that already align with this idea of “Let us cut the chaff and get to the wheat,” and finding out what we really should be paying attention to. These are the simplification questions.

Now, Harvard Business Review did a study where researchers found that about 41 percent of a knowledge worker’s time comprises what they call “low-value activity”—this category that I’ve been talking about over and over. And they said, “Why 41 percent? That’s a lot. Why so much low-value activity?” You have to understand before you start driving into utilizing the questions that there are complex reasons that we hold onto all this stuff. Corporations, large entities—they don’t cut; they add. We add initiatives and tasks. We add reports and documentation. We add compliance and protocol. There’s nobody who takes away. It’s just not what we do.

There’s also the element of the psychology that’s like when your aunt keeps 40 rolls of wrapping paper and 20 pairs of scissors because, well, “just in case.” I should make this whole deck, just in case. I should do this whole report, just in case. I should perfect this spreadsheet, just in case. And, of course, if we start getting into the nitty-gritty of looking at what that costs us in a business sense, we can start getting excited about letting it go.

Now, through the use of the questions, we typically can coach a company to reduce its busyness, to free capacity somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 to 8 percent. As you start playing with implementation, I want you to be excited about the possibilities of what could be there. If you as a team—I know that we have a lot of mixed groups here, but let’s say any one of your business units—decided to reduce 2 percent of low-value activity, it would be the same as adding one week per year for every person who works there. Now, if we’re going to get one week per year back, and 2 percent is the very, very bottom, what does that mean?

That means that for every 50 people who go through that process, you just built a full-time employee out of weird science, right? If you get all the way up to reducing your low-value activity by 8 percent, that means that you have built an additional full-time employee for every 12 human beings who do that work. So what does that mean to you? That means more time, more thoughtfulness, less stress, and all of the wonderful things that come with a lifestyle that has white space that is integral to it.

There’s also a very fundamental way—and this is very important for women especially—that we regain capacity. It’s another way of letting go, and that is by keeping our hands—this is a hard one—off the work of others. It’s very, very tricky for both genders. But more so for us. I have to tell you, I’m terrible at this. I always go first with anything difficult or embarrassing. I’m terrible. I’m so bad at this that I’ve been working on it, really, as long as I can remember, but it is a foundational element of white space mastery to learn how to take your hands off the work of others.

An enormously relevant and true problem that many of you will have that eats up your white space is stepping into the work of another that you don’t need to touch. Actually, the impulse control that you learn by not doing that over and over and over—whether it be your children, your husband, your spouse, your partner, and whether it be at work with your colleague, your coworker, your supervisor—you liberate white space for you and training opportunities for them. And that impulse control that you learn also becomes a foundational element in following up with the questions on some of your own, already good enough, thorough enough work that you also need to take your hands off of. There’s a lot of different places that we can go with that.

Now, everything that I’ve talked about so far with white space has been in the category of reductive, and the reason I spend so much time there is because that’s not how corporations think. Again, I said we’re additive, additive, additive. If I can coach you that this idea that there is a possibility of work being easier, different, and more effective by looking at every single thing you touch in being reductive, there is enormous, enormous gold for you there. But that’s not the only benefit of white space.

One of the benefits of white space is in the area of it being recuperative. If you followed Olympic athletes through their training, you would find that they don’t work out and lift weights and run hard every single second of the day, because they have an intelligence that is part of their culture that understands the recuperative power of the pause, of the break. We don’t have that in corporate America.

And so the ability to just take an exhale, the ability to think for a moment after a meeting, the ability to have an uninterrupted vacation—these are incredibly foundationally relevant to what you contribute at work. They are not only good because people deserve balance and sanity and low stress; they change the way that we work.

Actually, when people feel like they have a recuperative evening and they’re connected at home, they return to work 21 percent more effective than when they’re not. When you take an uninterrupted vacation as opposed to an interrupted vacation, you reduce your possibility of heart attack the year after the trip by 50 percent. These are staggering acknowledgments of the importance of this kind of recuperative work.

Then, the last stage is expansive awareness because, yes, we’re going to be reductive, reductive, reductive, reductive, and we’re going to have a little bit of recuperation. And then what? Then, we’re going to learn how to have this wonderful time. Where does that lead us? Well, that leads you to all the gold that you want in every direction you turn professionally because you will have the ability to sit and think about what a client really needs.

You will have the ability to survey the people you manage and watch, even if it’s only one or two. You’ll have the ability to look within yourself and find the drive to even care about things like values, visions, compliance. Who could care about that when we are so exhausted? That oxygen in the system of white space—that is the expansive benefit. So there are many, many different areas. I want to give you a couple of little white space tips and tools.

Now, you’ll notice that I kept the tips and tools for later because everyone wants tips and tools, and, like many corporations, you may individually make the mistake that you think this problem can be solved by tips and tools, so you want to know email management and inbox this and meeting that and five-slide decks. And yes, that’s all great. But the mind-set shift, the psychological shift—that is the fuel, the driver, to make all of this sustainable and really make a difference.

That being said, you want tips and tools. Let’s talk a little bit about email and a little bit about meetings. Most of you will complain about email quantity as the biggest problem, especially now that you have limitations on quantity, but what we’ve found is that quantity is not actually the biggest thief of white space. The biggest thief of white space is that we have all co-created, and now we don’t know how to stop the presumption of real-time response in email. The moment that email clicked over from being an asynchronous medium—which is the way that it was designed, and which means I send to you, and then whenever you feel like it you send back to me, and that’s not in time; that’s called “asynchronous”—to an asynchronous medium such as texting, now we’ve changed the entire face of email. So what that does is to create response time expectations that are ridiculous and get in the way of every other thoughtful task that you might touch in the course of your day just because some caffeinated hotshot decided to turn email into a competitive sport.

Now, what happens is that brilliant people in every industry spend their whole day sitting and looking at the top of an inbox with a ping-pong paddle. This is our professional posture. What would that look like in a white space culture? In a white space culture, we want to give you supports to do email differently, and one of them would be, as an example, the response time codes. These are codes that are actually very, very easy for you to use as long as you have an intact team that can decide on them together. Put “NYR” in the subject line—“Need Your Response.” This is very different from an informational email. “NYRT”—“Need Your Response Today.” “Today” is a different time frame from the next one, which is “NYRQ”—“Need Your Response Quick.” And this is where you have to be very careful, because in our crazy, crazy world, in five minutes you have to be careful not to cry wolf. Within five minutes, everything will be “NYRQ, ASAP!!!,” red flag, because we’re all just trying to bust through the daze that others are in due to their overload. So be careful with NYRQ. And my favorite, because I travel a lot, is “NYRNBD”—“Need Your Response Next Business Day.”

If you are a leader like me, and you just don’t like to save them as a draft, you just don’t like it—you want to send them when you write them—that’s fine, but when it says, “NYRNBD,” you are communicating to your team, “No, please don’t put down the spatula on a Saturday afternoon from the grill; please do not get up in the middle of the night from lying with your partner; NYRNBD is fine.” You’ll be amazed, if you actually start getting curious about the people who work for and around you, the degree to which they will pull themselves out of personal time in an extraordinary and ridiculous way because of the fear of not keeping up with response time.

Another thing that you really want to try is just to have explicit conversations about response time protocol. It’s very important to have explicit conversations about what the response time should be. Should it be a minute? Is it three minutes, five minutes, an hour? As long as you talk about it out loud, you are steps ahead of all of this assumptive time that we waste.

I’ll give you another quick one on meetings. I think meetings are kind of based on magical thinking, right? So first of all, there’s the magical thinking of I can be in one building on one floor from 12:00 to 1:00 p.m., and then I can be in another meeting on another floor from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. That’s magical thinking unless you have a transporter from Star Trek. Then, there’s the other magical thinking, which is I can be in meetings and conference calls all day long, and then somehow, at my desk, work is getting done by enchanted little elves.

No, you can’t do anything when you’re in that back-to-back meeting culture. And so, in a white space environment, what we want to move you to is trying to have much, much more autonomy of when you’re sitting in meetings and when you are not. As I said, we come in as the friendly stranger in all sorts of cultures and we hang out with people, and what’s fascinating is that I always ask the question: If you were to spitball the percentage of your meetings that you find are low value, where you are neither benefiting nor contributing, what would that percentage be? And we hear 20, 30, 40, 50 percent back to that question. It’s not a scientific survey, but it’s fascinating that the numbers are not 3, 4, 5, or 6 percent.

What is also fascinating is, again, all of the complacency and casualness that go around with everyone knowing that, but not changing it. So here is a white space way to change it. Again, you can only play with this if you are in a small, intact team or in a line of business that would like to adopt white space. In a regular email meeting invite, you have two options: “yes” or “no.” In a white space culture, you have four: You can opt in, which means that you are going to go; you can opt out, which means that you are not going to go—by the way, not because you don’t feel like going, but because you’ve decided that you will neither add value to nor benefit from the meeting; you can opt over, which is a delegation technique—“I’m not going, but I’m sending the delightful Susan in my place; and there’s on call—my very favorite—which means that you sit at your desk and you work, and, if they need you, they ping you, and you call in or you Skype in, or you come in, because sometimes they only need you for 10 minutes out of the 50. And there’s wonderful amounts of productivity that can be found in the leftover time.

Now, here’s what’s really, really important. I don’t want you ever to get in trouble from coming to a speaking event, so please do not tell your boss that you’re opting out of a meeting. Because nobody else knows about this, right? Nobody else understands yet. You might not even be ready to put the words white space on your calendar. You might want to put something mysterious like big data, because people won’t know what that means, but they will probably leave you alone during that time.

This, more than other kinds of teaching, is almost like a religious conversion where slowly we have to bring people along in the psychology, in the mind-set, so the very best thing to do is to go and start having conversations. “What could this look like?” “How can we implement?” “How can we play?” “Who wants to play?” “What are the values?” “Where do we have the QQS?”

Have these conversations, and you can build some solutions internally, you can use external help, you can find ways to implement. But just know that the concept of white space alone, like anything else you’ve ever heard in a speaking engagement, will be conceptual unless you start playing around with “How will we operationalize this?”

Now, I tend to focus on business benefit because my job is to make companies more effective and perform better, but, in my heart, I will never, ever leave a keynote without at least spending five minutes on the reasons why you should take white space home.

Now, it is so important to me that you understand that when you take this work home that, yes, it does benefit your work, because you come back and you work better when you’re good at home. But when you are connected, when you have time to have open, flexible fluid time at home, the ride could come to your door, and maybe you can say yes. And maybe you pass this modeling and messaging down to these overscheduled, multitasking little people who may live with you, because most children now are busier than any Fortune 500 CEO you have ever met.

What I would highly advocate, unless your work schedule prohibits it, is to take these previously overscheduled children, cut about a third of the things that they do—because I swear to you that they will live without tap dancing and flute—and then kick them out into the backyard. Just push them. You have to push them out physically into the backyard. And these overscheduled children will look back at you, and they will say, “What do I do here?” And you leave them there until they learn how to play and to make up stuff in their brain, like dinosaurs and diamonds and princesses and princes, with nothing, and then they may come back in.

The white space messaging is so powerful to trickle down to children. I’m always advocating and throwing that in there where at all possible.

The hardest element of this work is that it works best in an intact population of any kind. You might imagine if you’re trying to make a philosophical shift like this, and it’s actually even harder if you’re in the women’s group, because now you’re going to go back, and no one who wears a tie is going to know about white space. So having a conversation first that is aligning is the best thing to do.

Whatever level of seniority you can reach, you can bring the questions in for fodder, and you can say, “Listen, we had this content in the wholesale program, and here is what I noticed. I noticed that there are places where we could be reductive, and we can have business benefit from it.” Now, if you’re talking to gentlemen, you always have to go through the doorway of ROI. I can say to you that this is important and you will say, “Amen,” because I don’t know what the ROI of breathing is, but I sense that it’s really important. And you can get away with that in the women’s room.

I’m just telling you honestly after doing this for 17 years. You need to talk about quantification. Maybe do a little homework. Try to figure out where the things that don’t deserve attention are costing you time, and then do the math and find out what that time is worth and say, “Hey, I think we’re wasting X human hours per month doing X, Y, and Z, and can we have a conversation?” So, quantification and elevation—you want to bring it to the most senior level you can and then hope that it can trickle down from there.

If you end up in an area where no one else will play with you, you can always use the questions, and you can do white space alone to a certain degree. And, then, you will hit limits where you need team engagement and you need organizational engagement. But you can take your white space practice pretty far just from your own awareness.

Maybe I should help you understand the difference between mindfulness, that idea of putting all your senses and energy on one thing, versus white space, which might be an interesting little progression to go through. So there is meditation, mindfulness, mind wandering, and white space. Let me just quickly tell you the difference between those.

Meditation is a disciplinary experience for your mind. It’s about getting your mind to pay attention. You have a candle or your breath or a mantra, and your mind wonders off and you go, “Come back, come back, come back.” That’s meditation. Now, I’m going to make this even a little clearer. I’m going to analogize each one to taking your dog for a walk in the park. That’s when you have a dog on a leash and you go, “Heel,” and you pull back in. That’s meditation.

Then, there’s mindfulness, which is “I’m putting all my senses and energy on one thing.” This is the dog; he’s walking; he’s feeling the grass under his feet; he’s smelling a hot pretzel cart—full sensory complete attention on one thing. That’s called mindfulness. And it actually aligns beautifully with white space but is a little different.

Then, there is mind wandering, which has had a lot of press lately, and the only thing you need to know about mind wandering is that it’s nonvolitional. You don’t choose it. You’re working on a very important report, and, all of a sudden, you’re in a Groupon for Caribbean food. How? You don’t even remember? What just happened there? Nonvolitional. So this is a dog. Whoop! He’s off the leash. You didn’t plan it. He’s gone. So that’s a nonvolitional element—that’s the wandering part.

What is white space? White space is when you, on purpose, take the leash off the dog, and you hit him on the butt in the park, and you say, “Run.” So it is the choice to create a pause in which your mind can be unencumbered and go in any particular direction that it cares to. Sometimes that can be ruminative and sometimes it ends up being planned for the next day, and sometimes it’s incredibly deep and you’re thinking about your life, and sometimes its wildly creative, and it can go anywhere you want. Maybe those little compartments will help you a little bit more to understand the details.

The problem with mindfulness only is that you can be sitting there thinking, I’m mindful, I’m mindful, I’m mindful, and then a swarm of bees is attacking you while you’re doing that. That makes it a little hard to do. Corporate culture, and all of its busyness and unnecessary junk, is something that cannot be attacking you while you have your space; otherwise, your space is to some degree invalidated. That’s why we work so much on that organizational stuff.

I’m looking at these beautiful younger faces and one of my passions is: What if everybody started their careers with this? Can you imagine? That’s why we’re trying right now to give white space video training away for free to every MBA program in the world that wants it, because imagine if they were coming in, in the very beginning, with this kind of mind-set.

The zero notification, moving toward zero notifications, is sort of an overarching goal. It’s hard to do. Definitely, definitely turn off those pings in the corner, and make decisions with your team when you’re allowed to reduce and minimize and eliminate IM for periods of time during the day. And, on your phone, there are a lot of different zippy, zappy noisy notifications that are going to be calling for your attention. You want to sort of take your baby steps toward this zero notification protocol, because then you are in a pull environment where you are the master and you say, “I now want information on X, Y, Z,” and you go, “Pull it,” as opposed to having all the information pushed to you. So that’s a great one to share.

The creation of white space is about making room for whatever is necessary. Sometimes what’s necessary for business is different from what is necessary for you, and sometimes they go together. Sometimes emotion is what is necessary. Sometimes finding a place or a corner or a ladies’ room or a park where you can escape and feel whatever it is you are running away from is one of the things that your busyness is pushing down. Our busyness can keep us comfortably numb as long as we keep moving.

It’s very tricky to say that just by creating space, and just by willing yourself to be still, you may actually find that you go through and then out the other side of something that’s really eating away at you, but you’ll never know until you give it that space and capacity. I think positivity is a beautiful thing, but I think it can be a lot of pressure if you’re trying to force positivity over every circumstance. Sometimes you feel crappy; sometimes you’re blue. Sometimes you’re grieving; sometimes you feel so anxious that you just can’t even sit down. Again, a gentleman may not quite have the same answer. But I think that that is actually one of the utilizations of white space—to allow things that need to come up. It’s not the business case, but that’s what I would say.

Step really bravely into a few minutes where you have nothing and no one around, and you’re in a safe place, and you have some eye makeup remover, and you can just let it go.

I want to just remind you everything we talked about. The reductive work of becoming aggressive and proactive about reducing all this low-value stuff, the recuperative benefits and element of having white space as a place to go during the course of your busy day, and then this wonderful expansive side, which is, again, so much in correlation with your strategic priorities, to think big, to empathize with clients, to connect, to have beautiful strategy, to have the heart and energy to give in a philanthropic sense—so many things on that expansive side. And I want you to imagine the cascade of that type of benefit.

So imagine if you had a cascade. That’s a negative cascade. That’s the cascade of one pressure falling down on the next, on the next, on the next, and eventually onto you. Imagine a converse cascade. Imagine if there was a cascade of white space benefit where you had leadership who really never wanted you to touch one more low-value activity, and that would cascade down to their own direct reports, being able to be thoughtful and strategic and lead your company in marvelous new areas that would cascade right down to you, to be more fuel. And then, don’t forget, that would cascade down right into the empty cup of your end user—that client or clients who don’t know any of this. All they know is that their experience with you was indescribably wonderful. And that’s where we’re really heading with all this work.

Juliet Funt, of Los Angeles, California, is the CEO of WhiteSpace at Work, a training and consulting firm that helps organizations, their leaders and employees flip the norms of business to reclaim their creativity, productivity and engagement.


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