October 1, 2016

Creating More “White Space” in Your Day

Do you have free time at work? Or is your calendar 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 it 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.  Do you feel similarly?  Here’s what I’m learning.  It may work for you, too.

Why white space

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. I was putting out whatever fire arrived at my door to be doused, them moving onto the next one. I was craving time to write, create and think, but it just wasn’t happening.

Here’s what did not work

  • Productivity software: These tools became a time sink, each time I tried to learn a new program.  I love to learn new software, but doing so 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.
  • Booking appointments back-to-back: Failing to schedule time between those 30-minute appointments.  I had to learn that 15 minutes was a minimum “think break” and that I really only could do three or four 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 operating on 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 two to three uninterrupted hours rather than 30 minutes.  I wasn’t making time to be a “maker” of anything, except excuses.

Three things that did help me create free time at work

  • Blocking off quiet time: These days, I schedule at least two three-hour blocks of time each week, and I either work from home or move to a quiet space away from my high-traffic office.  Typically, I assign myself one big creative task to accomplish in that time frame.  I may not finish, but my goal is to move it forward.
  • Moving more: 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 take a walk.  Nobody typically drops by while I am out for a stroll.  If they do, they can join me on my walk.
  • Meeting management: I reduced the number of one-on-one meetings with people 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 she can handle the triaging. People who drop by will get 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 new, I find that I sometimes don’t know what to do with the white space I’ve created. I feel a pressure to fill it with something and 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, but I trust I will get there.

A question for you

I’m curious if any of you have suggestions for creating more white space in your calendar. Please share what works for you and, if you like, how you use your white space.

Last updated April 26, 2018