- Michael Thompson
I’m a big believer that the enemy of productivity is always working. At the beginning of the pandemic, however, this belief was put to the test. Like many others, I saw my work contracts get cut in half, and I felt pressured to put in overtime to replace them. But fortunately, I didn’t have to. During this time, something surprising happened: New clients began reaching out, and I started feeling more creative and inspired than I had in years.
A big reason for this is because I continued to follow the lead of business coach Dan Sullivan and prioritized white space on my calendar. On his podcast, Inside Strategic Coach, Sullivan said, “Free time isn’t just a reward for hard work; it’s a necessary prerequisite for doing good work.” The key, Sullivan explained, is to proactively build breaks into your calendar before thinking about any work responsibilities.
At the end of each week, before I get bombarded with requests from other people, I break out my calendar and proactively put “white space” on it — time to simply be. Sullivan leaves 30% of his day unscheduled, explaining:
When you’re completely tightly scheduled, you only have time, focus, and attention for the work you are already doing. In other words, it’s just the existing projects; it’s just the existing opportunities; and you only have available to you the existing capabilities. But where your growth comes from is actually building into your schedule a 30% window each day where your time is not scheduled so that you can be aware of new opportunities, capabilities, and possibilities.
Prioritizing white space first forces you to work within limited time constraints, helping you to clearly see which tasks move your needle and which ones don’t. It also helps you to avoid burnout because it teaches you how to pace yourself. But for me, the greatest benefits of scheduled free time are twofold: It helps me to better connect the ideas I’ve been collecting, and it allows me to open myself up to opportunities I would have otherwise missed if I were only focused on the work in front of me.
On my calendar, I block out white space for two different purposes:
White space for “loose thinking”
It’s not a coincidence a lot of us do our best thinking or have our biggest revelations while out for a walk or in the shower. “Taking a break from the problem and focusing on something else entirely gives the mind some time to release its fixation on the same solutions and let the old pathways fade from memory,” David Burkus writes in Harvard Business Review. “Then, when you return to the original problem, your mind is more open to new possibilities — eureka moments.” I like to schedule white space to disconnect from it all. During this time, I might go for a walk, tinker with a hobby, or just sit and stare out the window, letting my mind roam wherever it wants.
White space to plan for the future
I also set aside time each day to tend to my network. I’ll get on calls or hop into groups I’m a part of to see what people are up to. (I’ve written before about the power of calling one new person a week.) Doing this not only helps me to keep my professional relationships tight, but it also exposes me to new ideas and opportunities.
Treat your breaks like you would a meeting with your boss and be on time for them. There’s a big difference between thinking you need a break and knowing that in 20 minutes, you have to take one. I’m not going to pretend like it’ll always be easy to protect the white space you’ve scheduled. There are days when either my kids or deadlines bite into this time. But that’s the best part — since you’ve already built adequate space into your schedule, you don’t have to stress or work late if you occasionally get thrown off course.
As Sullivan says, success comes to those who do the right things on a daily basis. Every week, block off time to figure out whether you really are.