Leading well is something all leaders should strive to continuously get better at doing. After all, leaders aren’t born, they’re made. Leaders who have a growth mindset, for their own personal and professional growth, are more able to evolve into great leaders, one’s who inspire greatness in others. But all too often, we get too bogged down with the work at hand to spend time actively growing and evolving ourselves. And we blame it on a lack of time.
I heard a great metaphor the other day from Juliet Funt, author of “A minute to think”. Think about what you need to make a fire – you collect all the ingredients you need; newspaper, pine needles, wood, matches. But you need one critical ingredient to make your fire ignite. Space. It’s the oxygenating passages between the pine needles, newspaper and wood that is the critical ingredient to make your blaze ignite.
Does your calendar have enough white space?
We need oxygenating space to make everything else work. In her book, Funt refers to this as ‘white space’ or ‘time without assignment’ because when she works with leaders and opens up their calendars, her first query is to see how much white space, or blank space, is on the calendar or is it just blocks and blocks of colour or booked in appointments. There should be enough white space on our calendars in between these blocks of colour but increasingly so, the amount of white space has become less and less. Time is our most precious resource and it is an endangered resource in the corporate world today.
Our culture of business is leading to burn out and a lack of productivity because there is no room for lingering space between one meeting to the next. Think of a time you have dropped from one online meeting straight into the next. I work with so many executives who seem to have their days filled with back-to-back meetings. Being busy is equated with being important, being successful, being productive. But the truth is, not having enough space results in us being less productive, less fulfilled, less creative.
Science has proven that in those moments when we have nothing in our calendar, no meetings, when we are lingering in that white space between meetings or projects and just giving ourselves time to think, this is when the magic happens.
We need to change our mindset around inactivity
But we need to change our mindsets as leaders to honour this space. From the outset, seeing someone sitting in their chair at their desk staring off into space doing nothing is associated with being unproductive. In reality, it couldn’t be further from the truth. There is complex activity in the part of the brain called the complex default network. The brain’s default network is a set of regions more active during passive tasks than tasks demanding focused external attention. One hypothesis is that the default network contributes to internal modes of cognition used when remembering, thinking about the future, and mind wandering.
In this space or ‘time without assignment’, is when we have the most insight and introspection and memory and creativity. Not only that, when we have enough space in our schedules, we also increase our effectiveness in the work we do. We have time and space to think about how to do things better, or what we can go back and improve on. In fact, when you give yourself space around a creative project, and actively step away from it to give yourself some breathing space, you can have what is scientifically known as beneficial forgetting, where you are able to disconnect from the previous threads of your thought process and have the opportunity to flush out some of the less productive thinking, and come back with a new fresh perspective. So, this strategic pausing, actually allows us to grow and create better ideas and new ways of doing things.
So how can we create more white space?
Leaders need to create work cultures where space is actually prioritised. The culture of business has it’s attributes but we need to be aware there is a difference between activity and productivity. There is often a tipping point where too much activity (meetings, work, emails); results in a fall in productivity. Creating more white space in our calendars, spaces of inactivity, can actually lead to our greatest moments of insight and reflection.
In my next article I’ll dig a little deeper to explore just how we realise the tipping point of being too busy, how we get to that point and how we can carve out more space in our busy lives to allow us to grow. If you’d like to learn more don’t hesitate to get in touch with me today.