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Creating More “White Space” in Your Day

On the importance of making room for creative work time.

by Sharon Hull in Time Management
October 1, 2016

Do you have free time at work? Does your calendar look like a solid block of color?

Appointments scheduled in back-to-back slots, no time for a breath in between and no chance for even a bathroom break?  I got to that place where there was no free time at work several months ago (my most recent assistants would tell you I have lived there for about ten years!).I finally decided that wasn’t how I wanted to live or work.  I wanted more White Space!  And I didn’t want it so I could goof off.  I wanted it because I needed time to think, to process everything that “came my way,” and to do more creative work, including writing and publishing.

In this post, I’m going to share the things I am learning to help create more free time at work, or what I call “White Space,” in my calendar, in my days, and in my life overall.

My journey to white space began several years ago when I read Paul Graham’s essay, “Makers Schedule, Manager’s Schedule.”  I realized that I was living a Manager’s Schedule, with 30-minute appointment slots in which I was putting out whatever fire arrived at my door to be doused.  My assistant threatened to close my door, cut a hole in the door through which she could slide food, and not let me out between the hours of 7 am – 6 pm.  That was pretty much how it felt.  And I was not thrilled about it.  I found I was craving time to write, create and think.  It just wasn’t happening.

Three things I tried that DID NOT HELP me create White Space at work

  • Productivity software – it became a time sink, each time I tried to learn a new program.  I love to learn new software, but that distracts me from getting any actual work done.
  • Saying yes to everyone – it was not possible to meet with everyone who wanted to meet with me. I had to learn the art of triaging, or deciding what I would actually say “no” to. Then I had to learn how to say “no,” but that’s another post entirely.
  • Failing to schedule time between those thirty-minute appointments.  I had to learn that 15 minutes was a minimum “think break” and that I really only could do 3-4 appointments like that in a half day, because someone always stopped by. The more I left time in between, the more I could deal with “walk-in” issues.

But here’s the problem.  I was still doing a “manager’s schedule,” and I still had no free time at work for creative thinking.  I understood the Pomodoro Technique, working in 25-minute blocks and taking a 5-minute break.  The breaks just never happened.   I discovered that I preferred a “creative flow” time of 2-3 hours, uninterrupted, rather than 30 minutes.  I wasn’t making time to be a “Maker” of anything, except excuses.

So here is what I learned that HELPED me create more free time at work:

  • These days, I schedule at least 2 three-hour blocks of time each week, and either work from home, or in a quiet space away from my high-traffic office.  Typically, I assign myself one big creative thing to accomplish in that time frame.  I may not finish the task, but my goal is to “move it forward.”
  • When I do need to work in “Pomodoro Time” I schedule my “Pomodoros” as 30 minute work spans and 10 minute breaks, and I try to leave my desk and increase my “step count” by taking a walk.  Nobody typically “drops by” while I am out for a stroll.  If they do, they can join me on my walk.
  • I reduced the number of one-on-one meetings with folks who are not my direct reports.  I try to make sure that my assistant knows how to find me, and when I am expected to be in the office, so if someone drops by and needs to talk, she does the triaging and the person gets to see me, just not “in the moment.”

So, How’s It Working Out?

In just the last month, I have actually had more free time at work, and I am approaching more of a “Maker’s Schedule.”  And I am “making” fewer excuses about my time. This is an ongoing process, and I don’t have it right yet.  Since it’s so new, I find that I sometimes don’t know what to do with the “White Space.” I feel a pressure to “fill it with something to stay busy.”  I am trying to resist that temptation, and to make peace with having time to breathe. I am amazed at just how hard that is.

A Question For You

I’m curious if any of you have suggestions for creating more “White Space” in your calendar. Do you prefer a Maker’s schedule or a Manager’s schedule?  Please leave a comment below about what works for you and let’s get a discussion going about White Space.

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Sharon Hull, MD, ACC

President and CEO at Metta Solutions, LLC
Hi, and welcome to Metta Solutions.I am a physician and a professional executive coach .  I help people thrive by coaching them to manage change, grow their careers, develop as leaders and integrate personal and professional goals. My passion is working with self-reflective individuals and organizations to help them achieve their goals.  Subscribe to the Metta Solutions Community here.
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