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Like most people these days, I place premium value on my time.
Call me strange, but occasionally I find myself recalling a favorite quote from Henry David Thoreau, the 19th century naturalist best known for his reflections on simple living. Thoreau warned against trivializing human activity when he said, “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”
That’s one of those pithy sayings that can be misconstrued. Was Thoreau suggesting that every minute of every day be crammed full of activity? I don’t think so. In fact, I believe that in the context of his minimalist preferences he was advocating a more strategic use of our time.
In today’s epidemic of busyness, some people find themselves trapped on a perpetual merry-go-round of activity. They complain about it, but they don’t know how (or perhaps don’t really want) to get off.
I get it. I enjoy an endorphin rush every time I check something off my daily to-do list. But I’ve also learned to avoid some of the traps.
Here’s an example. We have an excellent home gym. It includes an upscale treadmill, a Bowflex machine for dozens of muscle-toning exercises, lots of free weights, plus other fitness devices. All this with a widescreen TV, and windows overlooking the beautiful wooded area surrounding our house.
So, what’s the problem? The problem is too much convenience. Picture me on the treadmill. I suddenly remember an email I need to answer. It’s just too easy for me to walk upstairs to my office to write the email. Then I get distracted by something else on my computer screen and … well, you know the rest. I go back to “work” and don’t return to the gym to finish my exercise session.
There are many solutions to this. Or I could decide never to exercise, then die of one or more of the diseases that plague overweight, inactive Americans.
My solution? Several days a week I go to a great health spa that’s only a 335-second drive from my home. (Yes, I’ve timed it.) At the spa, I have access to more fitness machines than I could ever use, plus swimming pools, a terrific indoor track, and a personal trainer. Even if I happen to think of an email I need to answer, I always finish my workout at the spa—enjoying all the endorphins that come with checking off the various exercises listed on my iPhone.
All of this is to say that I’ve come to understand what works for and against my efforts to manage the attention I give to things that matter most to me.
That’s where my friend Juliet Funt comes in. She’s an expert (that term is overused, but she really is an expert) on issues involving personal and organizational productivity. Her clients range from Spotify, National Geographic and Costco to Nike, Wells Fargo and ESPN.
In a previous column (see “Feel Burnout Approaching? You Could Use Some ‘White Space’”) Juliet introduced us to some great ideas for boosting our productivity while simplifying our lives. Now she has a new book that digs even deeper. It’s titled A Minute to Think: Reclaim Creativity, Conquer Business, and Do Your Best Work.
Here are some of my favorite takeaways.
—> We live in an age of overload. The tyranny of the urgent often subjects us to a thousand forms of daily pressure and stress. Ironically (and dangerously) we are often too busy to become less busy.
—> A strategic pause can be our best friend. “Taking strategic pauses in between the beats of life allows us to access our white space and creates time for thinking, reflection, rest, and creativity.”
Without strategic pauses to help us access white space (unencumbered space between tasks on a calendar), our days look like this:
If we give ourselves permission to pause, we can see this:
Then we can have time to use those pauses for thoughtful activities like these:
All this seems obvious, doesn’t it? But, as Juliet says, the unfortunate reality is that “we find, choose, and are subjected to endless activities grouting in these critical open spaces.” Then our filling activity becomes so engrained in us as individuals and in our organizations that we forget white space even existed in the first place.
—> What white space is. Using white space is about recuperating—taking time to reboot your exhausted brain and body. It’s using the pause to reduce—letting go of what’s unnecessary to make room for what’s most important. It’s using the pause to reflect—taking an idea to the next level. Or, as GE CEO Jack Welch called it, “looking out the window time.” And it’s using the pause to create—innovating, solving a problem, strategic planning.
—> Too much information robs us of excellence. Juliet says “knowledge is good, but information junkies can fall into a bottomless pit of dashboards, scoreboards, spreadsheets, and the internet.” Much of the information we generate isn’t even used. Juliet tells the story of one man who tested this. He was asked to create a package of 22 collateral items for a sales team. Juliet reports that in each of the 22 pieces of material, “he embedded (not in a sneaky place like the footer or appendix, just in a place where anyone reading it would have found it), the following note: ‘If you’re actually reading this, email me and I’ll send you an Amazon gift card for $50.’” Not a single person claimed a gift card.
—> Simplification questions: Is there anything I can let go of? Where is “good enough,” good enough? What do I truly need to know? What deserves my attention? What meaningful work am I not making time for?
I told Juliet her book is like Velcro: I found myself getting attached to her ideas in a way that’s reassuring. Frankly, her ideas are not revolutionary, and they certainly aren’t complicated. But they are highly practical. She’s a master storyteller (lots of real-world examples), and her gift with language will make you smile. She writes about a singularly serious subject (how we manage our lives) with remarkable insight that can be put to immediate use.
Looking for some white space in your life? Take a deep breath, then grab A Minute to Think.
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular columnist.