Breaks and whitespace

Last week was a hell of a first week. I’m charged up, reeling, and boiling over with ideas, reflections, and curiosity. If you could see inside my head, it would look like a fireworks factory on fire. On Friday night, I felt absolutely brain dead; stunned by the pace of the week. Saturday it really sunk in: the sheer amount of work ahead and scope of what we’ve set out to accomplish over the next 30, 90, and 270 days as a company (spoiler: it’s not just about the tools). Sunday delivered a key reinforcement of the idea that breaks and whitespace are important. I’ve come across this topic several times in the past month so it felt natural to write about it.

We’ve all had the experience of looking at a problem for hours and hitting a wall. Then, after we’ve taken a break from the intense focus, we came back and were able to move ahead. Or we got to the end of an exhausting week (like I just had) and recharged by setting aside time and space to do something we love: sports, reading, listening to music, time with friends and family, watching a movie, meditation, etc. So what’s going on here?

Disengaging from actively thinking about a problem allows your mind to move into a more passive state where your subconscious turns things over, reflects on what’s happened, and thinks about where you want to go next. When we re-engage, those thoughts and insights are brought to the foreground and the way forward appears… usually (sometimes you just need a bigger break). The way we take a break looks different to each of us. Personally, doing something physical like going for a walk to get coffee or hitting the gym works well to create whitespace. I’ve also found that engaging my mind in other ways such as reading or having a good conversation achieves the same outcome. Whatever it looks like for you, the idea is to pull your head up and (literally or figuratively) step away from the task at hand.

I said this has come up frequently in the last month and I’ll share four places: In a lecture posted online, Eckhart Tolle spoke about embracing stillness by getting out of your mind and shifting your focus to feeling the presence of your body (start this shift with breathing). In “Sprint” by Jake Knapp, they build short and long breaks into each day of the 5-day cycle which act as “pressure release valves” to let people’s brains rest and reconnect with the world outside of the sprint. In “Thank You For Being Late” by Thomas L. Friedman, he talks about the gift of time when someone is late for dinner which gives you the opportunity to sit, listen to nearby conversations, and let your mind wander. And in his recent article “Too Busy to Create,” Lorne Rubis talks about being intentional in quieting the mind to create room for new ideas and creativity.

So it should come as no surprise that, when we launched into collaborating as small groups this week, we found the work flowed better when we purposefully created whitespace and took those much-needed pauses. Sometimes you can do more by doing nothing.

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