31 Ways to Use White Space to Unleash Productivity

I learned about white space from my fantastically talented illustrator, Allison Bair. I was, yet again, stuffing too much onto a page. She pushed back explaining it was going to exhaust the user, confuse them and be utterly useless. In design, you deploy white space intentionally to create balance on the page. White space works hard to create separation, clarity and harmony. One thing for sure: it isn’t nothingness or lazy.

White space in a calendar works in all the same ways for high-performers. Yet, when I suggest that leaders should systematically schedule white space into their calendar, I normally get a puzzled grin. “But, how is that productive?” The response is a hallmark of the “busyness” mindset in our society. It’s also accompanied with a heaping helping of stress on top. And, a side order of fatigue and ineffectiveness. White space is about taking the time to work on your business. Don’t get me wrong. You need to do the work of your business and role. But, it is critical to stop and think about your business too.

White Space breathes life into the Principle of “Refresh and Renew.” How you spend your time and where you venture will depend on the type of thinking you need to do. White space is about synthesizing new ideas, finding core systemic issues, connecting with the community and charting a compelling path forward.

Throughout my career, my best thinking occurs in intentional white space. Paradoxically, I used to do my headiest, most tedious thinking in places with the most noise. Specifically, I loved going to dance clubs earlier in my career. Before family, it was a regular canvas for white space. While my peers were thinking about finding a spouse, I was thinking about a problem. For some people, those were one in the same.

Majestic Oak Tree photographed on a walk through Jacksonville Arboretum


White Space is crucial to leaders because creativity and decision making are subject to fatigue. The research is clear that these are finite assets. In order to unlock your best decisions and creativity, you must have white space to stop, refresh and think about your business. After all, as a Leader, someone has to have their head above the landscape of the business to chart the best course. That someone is you.

“As CEO, I have realized I don’t need to be the first one in and the last one to leave, but I do need to be the most impactful person in the office. And my ‘Thinking Mondays’ help me accomplish that.”

Brian Scudamore, CEO O2E (1-800-Got-Junk), who takes every Monday to think

Leaders are Learners

If you want to outperform the marketplace, you have to build skills and generate ideas that prepare you and your people for today – and tomorrow’s realities. Synthesize new ideas and innovative thinking by looking outside your industry. Don’t subject yourself to benchmark thinking only available by comparing yourself within your industry. Start thinking, “Exponents, not increments.” What ideas can you apply from outside your industry that will change the rules of your game? To do this, you have to read, get on the phone and talk and start taking people to coffee or lunch. We don’t do life alone; don’t act like you have to solve everything yourself.

According to Tom Corley, author of Rich Habits: The Daily Success Habits of Wealthy Individuals, rich people (annual income of $160,000 or more and a liquid net worth of $3.2 million-plus) read for self-improvement, education, and success. Whereas poor people (annual income of $35,000 or less and a liquid net worth of $5,000 or less) read primarily to be entertained.

Business Insider (http://www.businessinsider.com/rich-people-daily-habits-2014-6)

Focus on the Essentials

White space allows you to temporarily escape from the noise to examine the essentials of your business. If you’re only slightly better than the marketplace, you may want to re-think your business. I’ve said it at least a gazillion times inside businesses, “Don’t just process’; think.” When you are working on the right boulders in a focused, creative manner, results follow. You’ll start executing to create exponential growth instead of settling for incremental growth. And, that would be pretty cool, right? (Psst: Exponential thinking is way more fun too!)

Here are 31 Ways to Use White Space to Spur Breakthroughs:

  1. Get clear on your personal vision and values. Write them down. This drives action, motivation and sustains you when shit gets hard. Without these, you are simply a leaf blowing in the wind. Need an example? These is my vision and values page.
  2. Identify someone creating impact in your community on LinkedIn that isn’t – and won’t – be a customer
    1. How can you provide them value?
    2. Ask them to lunch – and pay.
  3. Call a colleague in another office about a specific problem you are facing. Don’t have other offices? Call a Vendor or Supplier.
  4. Read a magazine article in your industry (or outside your industry). Not subscribed anywhere? Free magazines start here 
  5. Write your morning intentions. Say your intentions. When we set intentions, our actions follow. Need help? Here are my daily intentions. 
  6. Write an opinion piece about why an author is wrong. Stretch yourself to take a position.
  7. Read a self-improvement book. If you don’t know where to start, start with “The Book of Joy.”  It’s all about living a life of fulfillment.
  8. Research the Inc 500 Fastest Growing companies in your area
    1. Call the owner and invite her to lunch. Pay.
  9. Research your local 40 under 40
    1. Call the winner and invite her to lunch. Pay.
  10. Research your local “Best Companies to Work”
    1. Call the owner and invite her to lunch. Pay.
  11. Research your local “Ultimate CEOs”
    1. Call the CEO and invite her to lunch. Pay.
  12. Surprise and Delight: Do something for your spouse or loved ones. When we are solid on the home front, we are at ease to perform on the work front. And, vice versa. (Don’t forget the vice versa).
  13. Vigorously exercise. There is no end to the benefits of exercise. Proof? Here. Here. Here. and Here.
  14. Listen to music. Classical music for Studying on Pandora is a nice mood changer from the commotion of motion and action. Or listen to Brain.fm for really focused thought.
  15. Whiteboard a problem. Tip: Consider painting a wall with whiteboard paint. Zach Mitchell‘s suggestion changed my approach to problems.
  16. Engage yourself in the 5 Whys to get to root causes. Then think about solving, streamlining or eliminating the root causes.
  17. Meditate – don’t know how? Check out Headspace or Calm
  18. Pray. Then take action. God rewards those who act.
  19. Study data. Create connections in your business between the abstract ideas. Think, “How can I replicate this amazing success?” and “What are the underlying causes and correlations I can draw out here?”
  20. Change your routine. Go to a new place for breakfast, lunch or coffee. You never know who you’ll meet.
  21. Journal. Not sure where to start? Use a writing prompt. I love Ryan Holiday’s Daily Stoic. 
  22. Write a letter to an employee thanking them. Gratitude changes your Soul. 
  23. Unleash Powerful Questions
    1. Here’s one: Challenge conventional wisdom: Identify 3 assumptions/”knowns” in your industry that are wrong. How can you take advantage of this industry-wide group think?
  24. Take 7 minutes to review your calendar for the next week Are you spending the right time on the Essential things?
    1. Delegate or cancel things on your calendar where you are not essential or are not essential to you moving the organization forward. Be ruthlessly disciplined. Ruthless discipline is only possible if you are clear on item #1.
  25. Mindmap a new system, process or idea. Freemind is my favorite program.  I’ve been using it for years, so there may be a newer solution with more bells and whistles. 
  26. Take a walk in nature. I once learned about accepting help from two trees in a forest. 
  27. Nap. Sleep is crucial to success. And, Arianna Huffington believes you can sleep your way to the top. Promise. 
  28. Watch an inspiring video or an amazing TED talk. Shawn Achor is my favorite.  (Tip: Subscribe to the TED newsletter)
  29. Read an online newsletter. I love HBR and Strategy+Business for really forward-looking, heady business thinking.
  30. Photograph nature. I took the oak tree photograph above while on a walk through the Jacksonville Arboretum. It’s my favorite nature picture. 
  31. Review and Reflect
    1. What is my biggest challenge?
    2. Am I still on the right road I intended to journey?
    3. Have I run off the road along the way? Do I need to make an apology?

What have I missed? How do you schedule and spend white space on your calendar? Do you have white space on the calendar? Will you now?

PS – Please feel free to share this list if you thought it was useful.

Random Quote

“There is nothing more frightful than ignorance in action.”

— Goethe

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