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White space at work

Juliet Funt

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We are in an age of constant busyness, and people rarely take time to pause or think. Funt asks you ask yourself if there’s anything you can let go of, and how much you would benefit by spending even a little less time seeking action and control. When it comes to the strategic pause of white space, a small change can have a big impact.

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I have three marvelous, curious, blue-eyed boys. And they were all born at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Beverly Hills, California. Modern, upscale Cedars-Sinai is where natural childbirth just means no makeup. That’s true. That’s the happiest maternity ward on the face of the Earth. There’s no sweating, no screaming; everybody’s just on the drip with a mimosa.

So we took those little babies, and we put them in those little tiny car seats, and we drove them home. They began to crawl and walk and talk, and mine talked a lot. And they did something called toddler looping. And toddler looping is when a very young child grabs a phrase and says it over and over and over and over and over until you die. We would take a day out, and I would watch my oldest son, Jake, adorably chattering through the bank, and then he’d be adorably chattering through the supermarket.

Then we would get in the car, and he would see something, and he would begin to loop: “Mommy, red fire truck. Mommy, red fire truck. Mommy, red fire truck. Mommy, red fire truck.” And one day, I thought to myself, Oh my gosh, this person talks every single second of the day, and if he ever takes a breath, he expects me to instantly respond. Then I had a moment of clarity, and I said to myself again, This person talks every single second of the day, and if he ever takes a breath, he expects me to instantly respond. Oh, that must be what my husband has felt like since the day we met.

So I went home, and I got my sweet husband, Lorne. I sat him down on the couch, and I said, “Honey, I was driving with Jake, and I had this thought. I thought that must be what you have felt like since the day we met.” His eyes got misty, he looked at the ceiling and said, “Thank you, Jesus.” And we are Jewish.

Now it’s true. I will tell you that men, more easily than women, tolerate silence in conversation—the small gaps, the interstitial time. But these days, all of us are becoming less comfortable with the moments of our life that we allow to be unfilled and ready for what may come. Our connection is constant. Our schedules are buzzing. Our minds are overflowing, and the pause is becoming a memory.

Now we are progressively more used to our seamlessly connected activities. But if we step back, we see that our time is no less under attack. Meetings, email, and ever-present smartphones are gobbling up our time, and consequently, the US workforce is so fried, it belongs in the food court of a county fair.

Innovation and creativity are withering before the false god of busyness. At home, families are struggling to connect because grownups are multitasking during dinner, tied to the office by invisible ropes. And so kids, lonely, go off to find a warm screen of their own.

This is a troubling portrait of what we call the “culture of insatiability,” where nothing that we do is ever enough. This driving, insatiable culture has turned the average workday into a sprint of reactive busyness, and it’s a giant problem. Because when talented people don’t have time to think, business inevitably suffers.

I challenge you. I challenge you to try to remember when was the last time you caught somebody thinking where you work? And what would you do if you came around the corner and just caught them humming? Would you call a paramedic? Would you alert the media? We have no posture that is comfortable when relating to thoughtfulness, even though thoughtfulness is what changes everything. Everywhere we go—finance, pharmacy, health care, retail—it’s the same. Racing, racing through the day.

It’s funny, but what does it cost? What does it cost you? What does it cost your company or organization in creativity and productivity and engagement?

So where are we in the continuum of our overload and the evolution of our overload? Well, I will tell you.

You know that moment in a Wile E. Coyote cartoon where he runs off the cliff, and then there is this moment, this one moment where he hangs magically in midair, and he can either choose to scramble back onto the cliff or fall to the riverbed below? That’s where we are. In this singular moment in time, we can choose to throw in the towel and say, “Work just has to be this way,” or we can search for a new, viable solution. And I have one for you.

Its secret ingredient is something called “white space.” So, what is white space? Well, white space is a strategic pause taken between activities. Whether a half second, one second, three seconds, or a half hour, these pauses laced through the busyness of our day add enormous creativity and engagement. They are the oxygen that allows everything else to catch fire. Now, it’s a pause in your schedule, but it’s far from empty because in white space, the mind wakes up.

In fact, if you were to take an MRI scan of your brain during this supposed pause, you would actually see amazing, complex activity in the default neuro network of your mind. And this activity has been linked to insight to introspection to memory and creativity all in the supposed pause.

The term came from looking at the white space on the calendar and realizing that on the days where there was more literal white space, everything worked better. Now, you may be worrying, you may be thinking that white space is just going to be another thing you have to fit in like trying to fit in exercise. It’s not that way.

Today, we’re going to learn how to reduce unnecessary wasted effort at work, and the white space will just appear as a natural byproduct. So, before I teach you how to get white space, the first thing we have to do is to go backward. We have to understand how white space was taken from you in the first place. Because if you don’t understand its thieves and its conditions for scarcity, you will never be able to hold on to the new white space that I teach you to acquire.

So, part of the problem is social conformity. We tend to turn in the direction of the crowd. We follow and we follow and we follow. In our over-busy, multitasking, screen-addicted world, here’s what this looks like. [visual] People start taking work home when work is actually already over. And the whole world says, “Okeydoke,” and it’s a new norm. People start checking their email every single second of the day like a woodpecker. And the whole world says, “Okeydoke.” It’s a new norm, and we face in that direction. Everybody starts ramping up their internal pace, and we just move faster and faster until we’re getting on the plane, and we’re shoving our bag in the overhead, and we’re terrified to let somebody wait one second. We follow and we follow and we follow.

But why do we face in this particular direction? There are a lot of directions to face. We could face in the direction of 25 days of PTO a year. But we don’t. Well, I have an answer to that question for you. I’m going to show you a slide in a second. It’s a little intricate to really read, but I just want to give you a sense of its movement and complexity. We have studied the question of why conformity tends toward overload. And we have uncovered 33 unique sources of pressure that are the reasons.

This chart here, we call it the attack chart, shows 33 unique sources of pressure all cascading down and cascading down. [visual] The pressures of your industry cascade down to your organizational values, which cascade down to your senior leadership behaviors, which cascade down and down and down until the final recipient of this flood of intricate and diverse pressure is you. We are not solving a simple problem.

Now, if you looked at this chart and you unpacked all of its elements and you dissected them, what you would find is they would be separated into four elements. We call them the “thieves of productivity.” They are drive, excellence, information, and activity. But why do we call them thieves? These are positive things. Drive, excellence, information, and activity are assets. You wouldn’t work anywhere that didn’t have these four things. You wouldn’t hire anybody that didn’t display these assets.

We call them thieves because they tend to overgrow their pots. And when taken to the extremes, they become unproductive. Drive becomes hyperdrive. Excellence becomes perfectionism. Information becomes information overload. Activity becomes frenzy. They actually can lure us into a pace and pressure that reduces our overall effectiveness.

But, if you want more white space, you’re going to have to learn how to purposely design drive, excellence, information, and activity so that they must always serve you. So how are we going to do this? Well, to begin on our new path, we’re just going to notice, just notice. Notice when drive, excellence, information, or activity are pulling you toward overload. Also notice when the call is coming from inside the house. This means that the thieves are also core parts of our individual personalities, and they appear in different proportions for all of us.

I’ll give you an example. I always go first. My worst thief is excellence. I am a card-carrying perfectionist. I also, by the way, love perfectionists. I love you and me and we because we are responsible for so much excellence and beauty and specificity and all those dotted i’s, and it’s just great. Yet, it can also get a little bit too CDO, which is OCD with the letters alphabetized. We get really too tight.

Now, this is my big thief, and I fight it every day. Each one has a value, and each one has a fault. Which one is yours?

The next step in your white space process is to install filters. Filters are mental constructs that interrupt your automatic surrender to the thieves. And all of the filters that I’m going to teach you today are reductive. What does that mean? It means that the goal is to unburden, to strip away unnecessary stuff, unnecessary to-dos and activities and reports and sign-offs and meetings and emails and texts. This is how you can create capacity.

And to excite you and entice you into this way of thinking, let me just have you imagine, if I could magically give you 3 to 8 percent of your team’s time back on a silver platter, what would you have them do with it? What would you have them do? You can get there, but you must be reductive. So our reductive filters that we use for white space at work come in the form of four questions. We call them the simplification questions, and they are:

  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?

I’m going to make you a promise from the heart right now. If you get nothing else from this session but these four questions, they will be sufficient to permanently and profoundly change the way you work. And you will notice that they all map back 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? And activity: What deserves my attention?

So what’s next? Let’s take one of these questions, and let’s unpack it a little bit to see how it becomes actualized in the world. The first one, Is there anything I can let go of? And remember, this works at the individual team or the organizational level. Is there anything I can let go of? Is there anything we can let go of?

So Harvard Business Review did a study, and they found that the typical knowledge worker’s day is composed of 41 percent low-value tasks. And they tried to say, “Why is it so hard to delegate? Why is it so hard to let go?” Well, it’s just not what we do in companies and organizations. We just add. We add initiatives and tasks; we add processes. We just don’t tend to remove them. It’s additive, additive, additive. But if you want more white space, you’re going to have to start practicing, at the end of the drill team and organizational level, and asking the question: Is there anything I can let go of? Anything? And what’s on the table? Everything. So for the to-do lists, ask yourself, What don’t I really need to do, or what don’t I need to do right now?

Activities—there are so many places to pull from. How much reporting do you really need? Does every request from an internal client deserve a yes? Where can you outsource? How about habits such as wordsmithing, interrupting or over-collaborating in those nice environments where a decision can never be made? No stone unturned.

Now, I’m going to give you a different way that you can let go, and it has to do with what we call “tightening your perimeter,” and that is to be very vigilant about making sure that your own effort and your own excellence is never wasted doing things that are outside your purview, that are really not yours to do. I will tell you kind of honestly that I sort of suck at this. I get my hands into everything.

I was keynoting at a conference. I finished the keynote. I was walking around in the breakouts and I saw the title of a breakout that caught my eye. It was called “Rewiring the Control Freak.” So I went in and sat down. I listened to this real Tony Robbins sort of motivational speaker kind of guy. And he said, “Controlling people can become less controlling if they do one thing over and over and over. They have to watch other people do things poorly while they do nothing.” I would rather eat a raw frog! How do you do that? So I tried, and I failed. And I tried, and I would just fail. Fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail.

Now, fast-forward to Christmas at my mom’s house. We are heavy into decorating and, yes, this is how Jewish we are: We stuff a goose. We deck the halls. Fa-la-la-oy. OK. So my mom and my brother are there. It’s always very hard for me to try to explain how to . . . how can I say it? OK. These are the two people in my life who never fail to make me look competent. Is that a good way of saying it?

So my mother and my brother are there, and they’re trying to wrap presents using pinking shears, which are a scissors that have a zigzag edge. They think it will be fun to wrap presents using pinking shears. Now, the shears are sealed; the brand-new ones are sealed in that horrible plastic packaging that no human being in the world can ever open. So I, as the ever-helpful member of the family, had a little thought, a little thought just zipped through my head. And it was, Why don’t you get another scissors and cut the top off? Then, for some reason that I cannot explain to you, my seminar guy popped into my head, and I thought, Oh, this is it, this is it, this is it. So I just took a seat, and I watched.

They’re biting the package, and they’re trying a fork. And I’m in my head, in my chair going, Cut the top off, cut the top off, cut the top off. But do you know what? Nobody died. My unique brilliance sat dusty on a shelf, and nobody died. And I have to tell you, this was so freeing. This became such an accelerant to my white space that it became my new hobby. I would wander through airports and supermarkets looking for stupid people doing things wrong so that I could not help them.

Now levity aside, I will tell you that learning how to tighten down the perimeter, learning to ask yourself through a filter over and over, Is this my work to do? is, in fact, an incredible accelerant to your white space. When tempted, simply remember that every single act that you do, every piece of work that you touch that is not yours to do, drains your capacity. Even at home. You get home and you notice that someone has loaded the dishwasher with everything facing away from the spray. You just walk on by. Just walk on by.

There’s a very problematic casualness around the lack of white space that we have. One of the ways to chip away at that problematic casualness is to look at the math. Because we can all pretend that work has to be this way, but actually, there is a phenomenal cost. Let’s say that a 10,000-person company was trying to save $50 million a year. That sounds like a giant undertaking, but in small doses, it’s downright manageable. You have an $80,000 a year employee; that means he or she makes $40 an hour. The math says he or she should be returning triple that in value to the company or organization. That’s $120 an hour.

So, if we remove 10 minutes of mindless busyness from that person’s day, let’s say we just reduce the number of cc emails he or she gets, we just made $20. Two bucks a minute, $20. Now let’s say we did that every weekday for a year; it’s $5,000. If we do that across an organization of 10,000 people, it’s a $50 million intervention.

Now, let’s look at a very small example on the team level instead of the organizational level. We were working with consulting clients in the pharmaceutical industry. They were working at the team level on “Is there anything we can let go of?” Like many people, their first response was no, everything is important. We kept drilling them and drilling them and, finally, they did say, “Well, we do have this one monthly report. Everybody works about an hour a month on it. We’re a team of 100, and it sort of rolls up to three lines in a report to the CEO that he probably never reads. We could probably stop doing that.” And so they did.

But then they did the math, which is 100 people an hour per month. They just freed up 1,200 hours, which means they built 60 percent of a full-time employee by cutting that report. Moreover, that employer was even more excited because it was built up from small slices of freed talent and capacity across the whole team. This is how the numbers stand behind these concepts.

So we’re playing around now, all of this is around. Is there anything we can let go of? We’ve done thieves; we’ve done the questions; we’ve unpacked one of them. Now I’d like to lead you into an example of white space practice.

The practice that we’re going to talk about today is around one of the tools that turns on you. What are the tools that turn on you? These are support systems and devices that promise to improve your work style, but actually, in reality, they tend to kind of defy boundaries, hijacking our time and resources. Think email, meetings, texts, and even teams can be a tool that turns on you.

We’re going to talk about email. Two hundred and four million emails a minute—that’s what we’re sending, and all of them so important. Don’t you love the people who send you an email and then walk down the hallway and say, “I just sent you an email. Do you want to know what it said?” Most people complain about email quantity, but we have a different angle. We actually think that the very biggest problem about email is that we have all co-created, and now we can’t shake the presumption of real-time response, and that is conversational email.

That’s not how email was designed. Email was designed to be purposefully asynchronous. That means I send a volley to Steve when it’s convenient for me. Ping. And then Steve writes back when it’s convenient for him. Ping. And it’s pressure free. Then some caffeinated hotshot decided it would be more fun if we could turn email into a competitive sport by accelerating response time. So now, the average person spends an entire day sitting in front of an inbox with a Ping-Pong paddle, ready to whack back the next ball as fast as humanly possible or lose a point. And this is disastrous. It is disastrous for our deeper, thoughtful work.

So what can we do instead? I’ll give you one little practice that we use called the “NYR” codes. The NYR codes are cues. They are cues in the outbound subject line of your emails to indicate true urgency as opposed to hallucinated urgency. NYR means “need your response” in the subject line. NYRT is “need your response today.” NYRQ is “need your response quick.” And NYRNBD, probably my favorite, is “need your response next business day.” We all travel; we’re all busy. So you’re writing your drafts on Sunday, and you get off a plane in a different time zone. You don’t feel like saving them as drafts, so you just send them out into the universe with NYRNBD, and now you’re communicating to your team. No, please do not put down the spatula on a Sunday and leave your barbecue. Please do not get up in the middle of the night. The next business day will be fine.

If we had a magic wand, we would make doing business a dependable process. That means we would marshal all the intelligence and creativity in our companies and organizations, all the good, all the intention, all the caring, and it would just pour into a giant stream of benefit. It would pour right into the empty cup of that end user.

Well, I have to tell you that the attack chart I showed you earlier, and all of its cascading forces of overload, are working against you. But I want you to consider a different cascade, a cascade of white space benefit. What if there was a cascade from a company or an organization whose pace and cadence ran according to human beings and not machines? Which could cascade down to senior leaders with time to strategize and look at their own blind spots? Which could cascade down to a front line with more creativity and productivity and engagement? Which could cascade down right into the empty cup of that end user whose front-to-back experience with your company or organization just becomes inexplicably superb? That is where we’re heading with white space.

And I hope you come along.


Juliet Funt 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. With thought-provoking content and immediately actionable tools, she has become a nationally recognized expert in coping with the “Age of Overload” in which we all live and work. Her clients include a number of Fortune 100 companies and span a wide array of industries.


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