Create Space to Think (part 1)

To do creative, high-leverage work, you need to step back and look at the big picture. But when there are fires to put out, demands to meet, and crises to solve, it’s hard to stop and think about what’s really important. When we zoom out though, we find that urgency doesn’t equal a true emergency. Many of the things we did should have waited until another day, or maybe another week. Some required more thought before action. And maybe the problem would have resolved itself. Take strategic pauses to avoid burning yourself out. A pause doesn’t have to be that long.

When you see white space on your calendar, do you try to fill it?
Are you spending your days in back-to-back meetings?
Do you reserve time to think about big challenges and new ideas?

This is Episode 34: Create Space to Think

Hello and welcome to The Incrementalist, a productivity show on making big changes in small steps. My name is Dyan Williams and I’m your host and productivity coach.

To do creative, high-leverage work, you need to step back and look at the big picture. But when there are fires to put out, demands to meet, and crises to solve, it’s hard to stop and think about what’s really important.

When we zoom out though, we find that urgency doesn’t equal a true emergency. Many of the things we did should have waited until another day, or maybe another week. Some required more thought before action. And maybe the problem would have resolved itself.

We often confuse active busyness with true productivity, and favor the number of tasks over the value of tasks completed.

You’re most productive and creative when your actions align with your top priorities and highest goals.
How do you know what to prioritize or what to aim for when you’re chronically busy? Instead of striving to do more, pause and think about whether this thing has to be done in the first place. Will it move the needle? Will it add real value? Is it the most critical, right now, when you compare it to all your other to-dos?

High achievers and overwhelmed professionals are biased toward action. Performance, and whether you’re efficient and effective, are measured by what you get done. If you spend time thinking, you have less time to do visible work, to make tangible stuff. But without thinking time, you end up doing unnecessary, busywork that is not aligned with core priorities and worthwhile goals.

Take strategic pauses to avoid burning yourself out. A pause doesn’t have to be that long.
In a Minute to Think, author Juliet Funt writes that a fire needs space and oxygen to burn. No matter how many pine needles, and twigs you gather, you have to add space between the ingredients, the combustibles, to start and sustain the fire.

Digital stimuli, caffeine, and sugar have their drawbacks and side effects. Just like how space oxygenates a fire, a pause adds oxygen to all domains of life.

Funt describes four types of pauses. They are recuperative, reflective, constructive and reductive.
The recuperative pause is when you rest, reboot the brain, and breathe a sigh of relief. Without recuperation, you get cognitive fatigue especially in the prefrontal cortex, decision making part of your brain. Disengage from cognitive activity by drinking water, stretching, going for a walk, chatting with a friend, or taking your dog for a walk. Listen to episode 10, Rest Even When You’re Busy.

The reflective pause is when you step back, stop activity and objectively observe what you’re doing. It’s decision making without distractions. It’s time to prepare and ask questions about what went well and what didn’t go well. If you’re heading into a meeting, you think about who the other persons are and what they care about.

The constructive pause is when you use thoughtfulness as a business tool toward achieving result. You’re strategizing, generating insights and ideas, and noodling over a project.

The reductive pause is when you use deliberation to decide what to delete, omit, skip, and cut. You shorten the to do list. Lighten the load. Reduce waste. You automate, delegate, and delete things. The email inbox, goals and projects list, standard reports, and meetings on your calendar are prime targets for reduction. Decide which to do and not do, or what to do now, and what to delay. Filter out so you can focus on the vital few. You have human limitations that no amount of scaling will solve.

Take a strategic pause between activities to recalibrate. You’re not being idle or procrastinating. Rather, you’re being more thoughtful and objective about what to do next.

Your first strategic pause could be after you wake up and before you get out of bed. To get centered, ask yourself how do you want to show up, what do you want to contribute, and how do you want to feel.

Funt defines white space as time without an assignment. It’s the free and open time on your calendar. Although it’s negative space, it still has a purpose and holds value. It adds flow, focus, productivity and creativity to your days.

It’s when you take strategic pauses in your daily activities. It’s like having a glass of water from which you take little sips throughout the day. It could be 4 seconds between phone calls. 3 minutes between emails. 10 minutes to look out the window, feel an emotion, and be present. Or to sit in a comfy lounge chair, close your eyes and let your ideas incubate. Or it’s the moment when you get out of your car and before you step into your home. They are interstitial pauses interlaced throughout the day.

A wedge is bits of time between activities: between one meeting and the next, a request and a response; feedback and reply, an impulse and action, an idea and a plan, work and life, and want and get. With a wedge in the middle, you’re not jumping immediately from one thing to the next.

In this podcast, the time between sentences is usually edited down to 1 to 2 seconds. Now let’s try pausing longer, adding space, for 10 seconds here. You can set a timer if you like.

How did that feel? Did you have an urge to fast forward? to switch to something else or fill the space with another activity? Or did it bring a sense of calm? There’s no right or wrong answer here. This was to build awareness of how even short pauses can be uncomfortable if you’re in a rush.

We tend to fill the white space with activity. Instead of looking out the window, we use the app on our phone to play games, check emails, and scroll the news. There’s a Netflix app for our phones and TV at the gas pumps so we don’t get bored.

Creating space is not easy to do in our hyperconnected, competitive world. But it’s just what you need to move from constant busyness to soulful productivity. You could begin with a few seconds, and build your way up to 15 minutes and then to 1 hour.

In conversation, truly listen to what the other person is saying before you think about your answer or what the next question to ask. Take at least a second or two to think before you speak.

Even ER nurses can skillfully incorporate strategic pauses. A handwashing ritual between seeing patients provides mental space. Race walking down the hallways is a recuperative pause.

Funt clarifies that white space in your day is not the same as meditation, mind wandering or mindfulness. To explain the differences, she uses an analogy involving your taking a dog for a walk in the park.

Meditation is a discipline of attention. You choose an object of focus. You focus on a candle, an object, a mantra, your breath, and you keep returning to the object of focus. This is keeping your dog on the leash, and when it tries to pull away, you gently say, heal.

Mind wandering is randomly moving from thought to thought. It’s not a volitional experience. Your mind slips away without your permission. It’s like the dog that slips out of the leash when you’re distracted. By the time you look up, your dog has run all the way across the other side of the park.

Mindfulness is another discipline of the mind. It’s being present with all your senses, and focusing your energy and attention on one thing. It’s the dog feeling the grass under his feet, listening to the birds chirping, and smelling the hot pretzel cart. It’s the closest to white space, but it’s different.

White space does not involve rules or goals. It is boundaryless freedom where you’re not going back to a stimuli or task. You can play, improvise, strategize, reflect, and look within. You are free to follow the thought or instinct or reflect on idea. You think the thought. You question assumptions, frame and reframe problems, analyze data, connect the dots, recharge and reboot, and generate ideas. This is where you take the dog off the leash, give it a tap and say go.

To create space, you look for Thieves of Time. Funt says these are overgrown assets that become risk. Here are the positive attributes that become negative when they run amok:

Drive becomes overdrive.
Excellence becomes perfectionism
Informed becomes information overload, and
Activity becomes frenzy

These four thieves pull you over the edge and make it harder to do deep work? Spot the thief and disarm it.

Overdrive pushes you off the busyness cliff. You’re not being selective enough about what you need to accomplish in a given day. Ask the simple question, Is there anything I can let go of?

Perfectionism causes you to overdo. You get lost in unnecessary detail, like the type of font you use in a report. The type of bullet points you use in a slide presentation. Ask the simple question, where is “good enough,” good enough?

Information overload leads you to consume too much information. You have way more data than you can actually use and apply. Some of the information you gather is purely assigned, habitual or recreational. As the simple question, what do I truly need to know.

Frenzy gets you overwhelmed with low value activities. You’re depleted by the share number of things to do. Ask the simple question, what deserves my attention?

The task, by itself, can be one of the following three: not time sensitive (doesn’t deserve attention now); tactically and strategically time sensitive (speedy or immediate action is important for good results); or emotionally time sensitive (desire or fear drives you do something or want to have something done even though there is no real urgency). You write the email or interrupt the person to get an immediate answer when you could just as well learn the information at the next meeting.

Watch out for Hallucinated Urgency, which is the Pavlovian pull to meet the expectation now, says Funt. This builds the tendency to interrupt others to get our burning needs met while stealing time away from them. What goes around comes around. You get information overload and more interruptions when these become the norm.

Now, I took a pause from recording and gave myself a minute to think. I looked at the clock. I’ve just decided to split this topic into 2 parts and end this episode here. I anchor my day with 3 to 5 things to tackle. Sometimes it’s just one thing. Today, for me, it’s recording this podcast, reviewing documents for an upcoming meeting, and finishing a legal memo. I still have time to address the next 2 important tasks.

Before I go, I want to make a quick announcement. I plan to roll out a short, self-paced online course on the Busyness Trap. If you’re interested in taking it, sign up for my e-newsletter and subscribe to this show to learn when it becomes available.

If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with your friends, colleagues and network. A five-star rating and review is also much appreciated. Thank you for listening and tune in again next time on The Incrementalist.

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© 2021 Dyan Williams