Saying No to More: Why Giving Your Brain Space to Wander Improves Your Productivity

UPDATED: May 7, 2024
PUBLISHED: August 16, 2021
Saying No to More: Why Giving Your Brain Space to Wander Improves Your Productivity

When was the last time you stared out a window and reflected on your life? Or daydreamed about a new project? Or reevaluated the way you spend your days?

Thankfully, productivity expert Juliet Funt is giving us all permission to make time every day to sit and think, which she calls white space. 

Juliet’s approach has helped companies including Nike, Google and Spotify help increase their employees happiness and productivity, which she outlines in her book, A Minute to Think: Reclaim Creativity, Conquer Busyness, and Do Your Best Work.

“What is rewarded in this particular environment is checking boxes, sending things, and activity where the motion can be seen by others,” Juliet says. “But if you think of ‘productive’ as meaning ‘to have made something of value,’ it doesn’t mean, ‘I sweated my way through lots of motion.’”

In this episode of SUCCESS Stories, Juliet explains about what really counts as white space (put the phone down), why we’re so uncomfortable with appearing like we’re doing nothing, and how to make some white space in your day. 

White space is unscheduled time.

White space starts out as time in your day when you have nothing scheduled. That doesn’t mean more time for social media scrolling, though.

For that time to count as white space, give it over to free thinking. No phones, emails or interruptions allowed. 

The idea is to take a pause from all the things that keep you busy, so your brain has time and space to discover emotions, ideas and reflections it’s been ignoring in the rush of everyday life. Juliet has an adorable analogy to explain the nuances of white space more clearly:

Imagine taking a dog for a walk in a park. There are three ways this walk can go:

  1. The dog is on the leash. The walk is more relaxing than working, but the dog (your brain) is still being guided. This is similar to a meditation or mindfulness practice, which requires you to concentrate on a mantra or candle.
  2. The dog sneaks off the leash. One second you were working on your report, the next you were checking on that eBay auction you’re bidding on. Your brain is off the leash, and though what it gets up to is fun in the moment, it will lead to guilt later because you know you’re not supposed to be playing right now.
  3. The dog is allowed off the leash to explore. This is what constitutes white space: You’re deliberately finding time to let your brain run around and follow whatever thought it wants to. Who knows what it might bring home?

The four ways to use white space

The way you use white space will fit into four general categories:

  1. Recuperation: When you’re feeling overwhelmed with tasks and demands, use your white space to stop and rest. Doing this regularly will help decrease your stress levels.
  2. Reflect: Take your white space to examine different aspects of your life. Are you happy with your job? Could your relationship with your partner, your children or your parents be better? Ask yourself how things are going and what you can change to improve them.
  3. Reduce: Is there something at home or at work that you’re spending too much time on without getting enough in return? Use your white space to think about the things that are cluttering up your day, making you feel overwhelmed, and plan how you can cut back on them.
  4. Construct: Make something new in your mind. White space gives your brain the chance to put aside all the distractions and demands and get creative. Let your mind wander and find a new idea, goal or dream.

Why we struggle to use white space

If the concept of white space sounds like a guilty pleasure, don’t blame yourself: blame work culture.

We’ve been taught that being visibly busy is the ultimate indicator of productivity. The idea that you can be lost in thought, staring out of a window—without frantically scribbling notes—and still be having important breakthroughs is foreign in our go-go-go multitasking professional climate.

Ironically, this ingrained cultural belief means we end up wasting time on tasks that aren’t actually productive, just so we can appear to be doing something. 

Think of all those meetings and reports that eat into your day but never lead to a big revelation—just more meetings and reports. If everyone had spent that time sitting silently, letting their minds roam, or reflecting on their lives, you probably would have heard more fresh ideas and new insights.

In an environment that values busyness as the mark of a strong work ethic, it’s hard to be the one who intentionally makes time to slow down and contemplate. But don’t let other people’s judgement dissuade you from exploring this useful tool. Eventually, they’ll see how powerful it really is.

How to embrace white space 

Incorporating white space into your life starts with redefining the way you feel about taking time out to slow down, and looking for space in your day that isn’t blocked out.

  • Don’t feel guilty. If you still feel guilty for scheduling a break from the rest of your busy day, just remember that many extremely successful people demand at least an hour of white space every day. It’s working for them, which means you can absolutely find two to three minutes at a time. Think of it as strategic rather than indulgent.
  • Notice the natural pauses. Sometimes you’ll plan white space around your calendar. If you have back-to-back meetings five minutes apart, for example, it makes sense to use those five minutes as white space. Other times, you’ll base it on your mood. If you find yourself feeling worked up and rushed, take some time out and channel that energy into your white space.
  • Practice. Most people have chunks of time in their day that could double as white space. For example, when you’re driving or on the train. Turn off your music or podcasts, don’t look at your phone or call anyone. Lean into the rhythm of the vehicle you’re in and let your brain wander. Learning the technique now will make it easier to use later.
  • Add a wedge of white space. Slip a small sliver of white space in between two activities: waking up and getting out of bed, for example, or between sitting down at your desk and starting your work. This will ensure you actually make time every day, which is how white space goes from something you have to practice to something you can’t imagine not doing.

SUCCESS Stories with Madison Pieper is no longer releasing new episodes on the SUCCESS Podcast Network, but you can still listen to the full conversation below.

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