White space. If it’s not in your life you are missing something. You may feel overbooked, understaffed, and exhausted. Yep, white space. What is white space, exactly? If you’ve ever done design work, you consider both the space where there are words and images (message space) and the space that is empty–called “white space.”
White space is important. Too much copy and illustratrion, and you feel exhausted looking at the page. You often don’t read any of it. Too little white space and you feel lost and disconnected, not sure you understand what you are looking at.
If you know this already, you might explore “passive white space”–margins and spaces between paragraphs, and “active” white space, the space purposely designed to give your eyes and mind a rest.
If you are interested in how to use white space in design, read Larisa Thomason’s excellent article “The Use of White Space.” The image on the left is from that article.
I worked in ad agencies and book design, so I value the good use of white space.
So yesterday, when I was having a terrible, no-good, horrible, really bad day (Judith Viorst knows about those days). I felt jammed up by 7 a.m., when the tree trimmer didn’t show up. The day got worse, and I was exhausted, angry, and useless by 10 a.m.
I made a choice that changed the day. Here’s how I did it:
1. I stopped doing my work. Put the phone down, signed out of email. I needed to distance myself and my anger from my clients.
2. I took a break. I got a glass of ice tea, looked out the window and did some deep breathing.
3. I re-set priorities. This is the hard part. I had to call clients, work on projects, sort out the muses for a blog post. But I knew if I forced myself ahead with the considerable self-discipline I am capable of, I would do more damage than good. I’d make mistakes because I was frustrated; I’d miss correcting those mistakes because I was rushed. I’d create more mistakes and less forward motion.
4. I added white space to my day. I cut out some items I thought I had to do. I added a few administrative tasks that were more noodly, didn’t require a lot of brain power, but needed to be done. I added a half-hour of reading a magazine between tasks. Another spot of white space. I ran some errands. At the end of the day, I had accomplished some necessary items, hadn’t ruined client relationships and felt less harrassed and frustrated. I need to be clear here: I chose not to do some important things because the risk of doing them and failing was more probable than being able to push through them successfully. This is the key to success–put off the thing that has to be done, in order to save it. It is a hard decision to make, and exactly why adding white space is a life saver.
I now have a name for deliberately putting off work because I am emotionally incapable of doing it. This is very different from avoiding work, creating excuses, or not meeting a deadline because you didn’t get up early enough. You know the difference. My day was saved and ended well because I added white space. Try it.
—Quinn McDonald is a communication trainer. She develops and teaches workshops to help people communicate more clearly.