You’ve done it, haven’t you.
You’ve sent a work email from the bathroom.
I know you have. Most of us business leaders are glued to our phones. Work can feel all-consuming. We don’t take a break, even when we’re, uh, taking a break.
But life isn’t supposed to look like this. We need what Juliet Funt calls “white space” — strategic rests and pauses between our busy-ness that give us a chance to reflect and think critically about our work and ourselves.
Juliet is this week’s guest on the Building a Story Brand podcast, and she’s going to help us understand the importance of these pauses for our work, the four big reasons we struggle with it, and what we can do to reclaim our rest and thoughtfulness.
This is an inspiring conversation, and the wisdom Juliet shares has the potential to give us better quality of work at the office and better presence with our loved ones at home. Here’s a recap of what we talked about, but I would also recommend you find time to listen.
The high cost of not being thoughtful at work
When was the last time you just thought at work?
Juliet says we no longer “value the idea of retreating into thought to find an idea that will turbo charge a business, or a company, or a project. That work is hard, and it’s very advanced, and it requires quietness, and we’re afraid of the quiet.
“Instead, we go to a new fuel source, the source of exertion, and we work hard, and we drive harder, and we log more hours, and we stay connected, and we feel as if exertion will replace the gems of thoughtfulness.”
Sound familiar? Well, it’s costing us.
As a leader, you’re paying your employees to perform at their best. And when they’re not working to their fullest potential, it’s wasteful on so many levels, the financial aspect being the most obvious.
Plus, your company or your division needs your creativity. If you’re constantly hustling with no time for deeper thinking, how can you have the next breakthrough idea for your business?
How “white space” can help
Betsy and I have three above-ground vegetable beds in our backyard. The first year, we had amazing results. The second year, the vegetables were mediocre. The third year, they were downright terrible.
We realized it was the soil. It started out wonderful, but over time, we stripped all the nutrients from the soil.
Everything in life works this way. We work this way, too. To produce your best, you’ve got to replenish.
That’s the idea behind white space, which Juliet calls “the thinking time, the strategic pause that’s in between the busyness.”
What does white space look like?
For Juliet, the concept of white space is broadly defined, because the idea is that your mind is free to wander and think about what it wants. It might look like:
• 5 minutes of quiet reflection after a meeting to consider what was discussed
• Turning off the radio on your commute home to ask yourself meaningful questions
• A one-minute pause when a situation angers you to understand and control your response
• A 15-minute walk around the block with your phone turned off
• 90 seconds of quiet ahead of a conference call to think deeply about the needs and challenges of the person you’re about to speak with
A lot of us might push back here and say, “I’m really too busy to add a bunch of breaks to my day.” But Juliet tells us these pauses can just be “interstitial” — short breaks, measured in seconds, laced throughout your day.
You’ll notice “checking Instagram” isn’t on that list. “Technology,” as Juliet told me, “would be a distraction that would cancel out white space.” She mentioned a study at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. They studied office workers in Korea and asked them to record the kind of breaks they took.
Those who took social breaks (which would qualify as white space) reported feeling less fatigued at the end of the day than those who said they took “cognitive breaks” — activities like reading or scrolling through their smart phones. So the kind of breaks we take really do have an impact in replenishing our energies and keeping us from feeling overloaded.
What is stealing our white space?
So, this part of Juliet’s thinking is an amazing revelation to me.
She and her team have identified four main forces or “thieves” that steal our ability to integrate white space into our work lives and home lives.
“They are”, as Juliet said, “assets that run amok,” and they’re the reason we’re overloaded.
These forces show up everywhere: in companies, in project plans, in meetings — and most critically, in ourselves.
Let me break them down for you.
Drive / Overdrive
Drive wants to climb the next hill, add another project, and keep moving forward. When it runs amok, it becomes overdrive. The downside is that the unrelenting force can create burnout for both you and your team. I understand this because I identify most with drive. Overdrive is the thing that keeps me from white space.
Excellence / Perfectionism
Excellence is wonderful. It’s one of our core values at StoryBrand. But as Juliet says, “you can waste a phenomenal amount of time perfecting out of habit and for fun, rather than perfecting something that is tactically relevant to business.” That’s when excellence gets out of control and becomes perfectionism, which will absolutely steal your white space.
Information / Information Overload
You can’t run a business well without great intel. But sometimes all the dashboards and spreadsheets and studies don’t have boundaries, and that’s when you’ve got information overload gobbling up your white space and paralyzing your decisions and actions.
Activity / Frenzy
Activity helps us move the needle on our goals. But when it comes with what Juliet calls “a borderline manic desire to keep making boxes, and checking them off, and adding more,” it becomes a frenzy. The sheer act of doing defines your days, and the white space of thinking feels strange and uncomfortable.
How can we stop the “thieves” stealing our white space?
The good news is that each of these thieves has an antidote, and it’s wonderful.
It’s as simple as asking a question — something that interrupts the natural paths these forces have worn out in our companies and in our lives.
For Drive / Overdrive:
“Is there anything I can let go of?”
For Excellence / Perfectionism:
“Where is good enough, good enough?”
For Information / Information Overload:
“What do I truly need to know?”
For Activity / Frenzy:
“What deserves my attention?”
Take a moment of white space even now and really consider the power of these questions.
Juliet encourages you to print them out make them visible because “they can work at the individual level, the team level, the org level. You can look at them one day on your wall and they occur to you one way, and another day they’ll give you a different answer, because they’re so nimble and flexible.”
We’ve done that for you, actually. At the end of this post, you’ll find a downloadable, printable worksheet to accompany this episode. We’ve included one page with these questions that’s ready to hang up on your wall.
How these questions can impact your work culture
As you incorporate these questions into your work culture, make sure you and your colleagues know each other’s “thieves” and support one another through them. For example, my COO Tim has excellence. I’ve got to say, “Tim’s gonna work himself to death pursuing perfection. Tim, this is good enough,” and he’s got to say, “Hey, Don’s gonna give into that, we’ve got to help him let go of that.”
As Juliet points out, pursuing white space isn’t all that difficult or complicated. “All it takes,” she says, “is for senior people to start saying, ‘I want my legacy to involve a culture that is sane and humane. I want my culture at work to involve the concept of thoughtfulness and a pride about ideas.’”
The critical importance of bringing white space home
Life happens in the white space. In fact, as profound as the principles Juliet teaches are for business, they take on even richer significance when we practice them at home with our families and friends.
Juliet tells a powerful, profound story at the end of the podcast. I wouldn’t dare ruin it by retelling it, so I’m simply going to give you the transcript of it here:
I was speaking at the sales meeting and this woman came up to me and she said, “I want to tell you a story.”
She said, “When I was a little girl, my daddy came to me and he said, ‘Let’s make a picnic and let’s go get Mama, and let’s go for a good old-fashioned joy ride in the country.’ And they made ham and cheese sandwiches and pink lemonade and they got those little animal crackers with the white on one side and pink on the other, and they took the basket to Mama, and they said, ‘Mama, come with us.’ And she said, ‘Well, I’m too busy, but you guys go and you have a great time.’ And they did. They had a wonderful time. They drove until the sun went down and they were laughing and singing and he died two days later.”
She told me that her mother talked about that for the rest of her life. That she didn’t take the ride.
I never told the story to anybody for a very long time, and then there was this one day when I was sitting at my own kitchen table, and I was working away on my laptop and I’m banging away at the laptop, and my husband was in the backyard with our boys, who were then two years old and four years old, and the babies were both naked, they each had their own hose, and they were washing the car. He sends me a text from the backyard into the kitchen, and says, “It’s really cute out here, do you have a second?” I texted back really fast, “sorry busy.” And then that story came back, and it picked me up, and I was so nervous, I knocked the chair over, because I was just rushing out there to make sure that I didn’t miss this.
There is not a mother or father in the world who hasn’t said, “I’m too busy for you”, and there isn’t a mother or father in the world who hasn’t pretended to watch someone build LEGOs and really been thinking about a spreadsheet. But, if we can remind each other, one moment at a time, to build in the habit of the pause, it makes it so much more possible for us to say “yes” when “the ride” comes to our door. I do believe that no one will ever regret not working a little harder, but I do believe that we’ll regret missing that.
The stakes are high. This stuff matters, both for our companies and our own hearts and our families. I encourage you this week to embrace the white space, even when it feels uncomfortable.
I’m also curious — which of the “four thieves” did you identify with? How does it show up in your world? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
Juliet has gifted StoryBrand podcast listers with the first three lessons of her online course. To get access to these lessons for free (a $47.50 value), follow these steps:
1. Visit storybrand.com/whitespace
2. Click Register (top right).
3. Add the “Introduction to WhiteSpace” module to cart, and then go to cart.
4. Click the scissors icon (right side of the screen, under Apply Coupon Code) and enter the code: STORY
5. After you click OK on the green pop-up, your cart will be empty.
6. Click MY DASHBOARD (top left of the screen).
7. Click the play button (right side of the of the screen, under View).
Executive producer: Tim Schurrer
Additional production and editing: Chad Snavely