Create Space to Think (part 2)

Making space between activities can be done solo, without allies. But industry norms and workplace culture might pull you back into chronic busyness. Norms are standards or principles of action that apply to a group. A culture is made up of norms. Effective leadership from the top reduces the burden on individuals who seek to have more margin in their day.

Do you have a hard time saying no?
Is email distracting you from what you really need to get done?
Have you ever used a digital device to multitask in a meeting?
This is Episode 35: Create space to think (part 2).

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.

In part 1 of Create Space to Think, I talked about the four types of strategic pauses: recuperative, reflective, constructive and reductive. Making space between activities can be done solo, but industry norms and workplace culture might pull you back into chronic busyness. Norms are standards or principles of action that apply to a group. A culture is made up of norms.

Effective leadership from the top reduces the burden on individuals who seek to have more margin in their day. In her book, A Minute to Think, author Juliet Funt explains that practicing white space together is better. You can do it solo without allies. But it’s easier to sustain when you have support. Interactions with others and not just your own actions lead to positive change.

To shift mindset, you start with yourself. Cut down on unnecessary meetings, stop interrupting others, and keep your emails clear and brief. Avoid being redundant without being harsh and cold.

One-word emails – thanks, done, received, noted, roger, ok – are often unnecessary and clog up the inbox, especially when it’s a delayed reply. Be consistent with implementing action so there is “assumed execution.” Set expectations ahead of time. Otherwise, you get people switching mediums or making follow ups, like sending you another email or calling you to check whether you got their message.

Check your email less and compose your email better. Put a wedge between your response and the request. This will help you address the question of when and how soon. It will also slow down the flood of emails you get back.

Take a minute to think. Or ask for 24 hours to get back to the person. Ask if this can wait until next week. And if you’re making the request that doesn’t require an immediate response, that could wait until at least tomorrow, let the person know in the subject line or in the message.

Here are four points to consider when it comes to emails:
1) Is this email mandatory or optional? If you don’t send it, are there any real consequences? Can you let this go?
2) Could you reduce the time spent on each message? Is this email good enough to send?
3) Could you opt out or leave others out of the thread? Are you oversharing or duplicating? Are you sharing for the wrong reasons? What does this person truly need to know?
4) Is it better to stay out of email and focus on the real task? Could email wait until the afternoon or the end of the day? What deserves attention now?

Take a strategic pause and consider whether satisfying your curiosity is worth the risk of having email shadow over your day. When you check emails on vacations, on weekends or in creative play, you might end up with a dark cloud of distraction that takes you out of the present moment. Yes, there could be good news about getting your big request granted. But there could also be bad news about losing the bid you so really wanted.

Distinguish between checking and processing your emails. Checking is easy – you get and open the email. Processing is the real work – you sort, delete, archive, reply, take action. Schedule when you check your emails instead of popping in and out of your inbox the minute you feel bored or frustrated. Aim to process your old emails before you open the new ones.

Have zero notifications for email. Check at set intervals, with the maximum being at the top or bottom of every hour, outside your time block for focused work. You go to your computer or your phone to pull content when you want to at a set time, instead of having alerts pushed on to you.

You do need to check emails about projects, deals and opportunities, and messages from clients and prospects. But you set time blocks for when you will batch process emails. And put a cap on how long you will process. Spend at least 15 minutes on a high value project or plan your day before you jump into your email inbox.

There’s no point in getting to inbox zero. There will always be incoming emails. There are always interesting things to give you the variable rewards of dopamine hits. For more, listen to episode 16, Hack Back Emails.

You can prioritize your boss, a collaborative partner, or an important client, but add a wedge whenever possible. Declare email bankruptcy if you must. I get tons of emails and if the person’s not a client or collaborative partner, or an ideal potential client or collaborative partner, I don’t always respond. It really depends on what my priorities are for the day, week, or month. If I haven’t responded in a certain time frame, and the person hasn’t followed up, I reserve the right to just hit delete. I have a lot of autonomy as a business owner. So you will have to learn what you can get away with in your own organization.

In any event, a quick or immediate reply is not always needed, recommended, or the best way to respond. Reply thoughtfully and on time, instead of thoughtlessly and prematurely. If you get negative feedback or a complaint, it’s better to pause, reflect, write out and rehearse the response you will give. Take a step back so you don’t get defensive and can empathize with what the person is saying.

To reduce interruptions, Funt recommends you keep a yellow list to capture ideas and information you want to convey to another person – instead of sending sporadic emails. It reduces the quantity and frequency of messages. Pause before you send an email and engage in hyperactive, back and forth communication.

With your digital devices, you can be physically present, but mentally absent. TVs, telephones, magazines and newspapers have been around for a longer time. But the “always on, always refreshable handheld, screen-based devices” and “Infinity Pools” are more addictive distractions. You can keep swiping down to swim in a sea of new content. You get to avoid doing deep work and producing real output, and instead invest your cognitive capacity on consumption.

You don’t have to delete your social media account or go off the grid to reclaim your attention. You could instead find a middle ground. Just delete the apps from your phone to avoid the just checks. Ask yourself, what do I truly need to know? Am I just reading, watching and consuming the information, without really understanding it, without knowing other valid viewpoints, and without applying what I learned? Am I postponing a decision?

Digital devices can lead to absent presence. If you have to check your phone when you’re in a meeting or with someone, do a phone narration. Tell the person what you're doing when you pick up phone.
Otherwise, you might leave the person wondering if you zoned out, if you’re still listening and if they should keep talking. When you pick up your device, narrate what you're doing. I’m looking for the sales numbers you asked for. I need to take this call from my realtor. If you keep this habit, you will be less likely to auto pick up your phone when it could wait until after the meeting or activity.

When faced with a request, be willing to say no and sandwich it with two yeses. Funt calls this the no sandwich or the hourglass method. Start by thanking the person for the opportunity. Explain why your bandwidth is limited. Ask for clarification on which of the 7 projects is the highest priority. Tell them you look forward to working on this new project at a certain time.

Or ask for 24 hours to think about the request. The hourglass method is about taking a strategic pause to decide whether to take on a project, instead of give an instant yes. It’s a conscious decision about how to channel your focus, time and energy. You’re not giving an auto response.

When you assign tasks or delegate projects, spotlight what’s most important. Here are the 3 top things out of 20 to do. Here are the real priorities that deserve the most attention.

The to do list can be very confusing and overwhelming. One activity might seem to be the most important until you compare it with another task or activity on the list. Do you start with #1. Or is #3 or #6 more essential?

Get clear on what’s most important and communicate it to your team. Give specific direction on what needs the most focus, time and energy now. Make a well phrased request and say exactly what you want or need to have done and by when. It does not become the other person’s responsibility until you give clear guidance.

Remember the 50/50 Rule, “Anything that bothers you at work is 50% your responsibility until you’ve asked for what you want.” But we sometimes stay silent, grumble, complain and harbor resentment. This is a time waster as I explain in The Incrementalist book. Principle 1 of the Incrementalist approach is to prioritize your high value, high leverage activities, the things you really want to do or have to do.
Whining without taking conscious action is of low value or no value. For situations you really cannot change, you either accept them, work around them, or take steps to move out the situation.

Funt outlines a four-step approach to expressing your truth with less stress:
1. Vent – release emotional tension to a trusted partner.
2. Empathy - widen your perspective and consider the position of the other person
3. Prepare – craft and rehearse your request, what you will say and how you will say it
4. Share – actually have the deep and difficult conversation, regardless of the discomfort.

Making space allows you to feel the emotions and clarify your thoughts. Maintain a tone of respect and appreciation. Say what you do not like (such as the behavior or situation). Express how it affects you, such as your ability to focus and make progress on top priorities. Make a request for what you prefer, like I need quiet, uninterrupted time to work effectively.

Besides unspoken truths, meetings fill up the space. Be deliberate about sending invitations and accepting invitations. Funt says the strategic pause helps you select the right medium for the message you wish to share.
2D communication involves simple issues, yes/no answers.
3D communication is more nuanced and complex. They benefit from verbal cues, tone of voice and eye contact.
A 2D medium is static, like email, Slack, and instant messages.
A 3D medium is live, like telephone, video and face to face meetings.

Match the message with the medium. A 2D message is efficient in a 2D medium and wastes time in a 3D medium. A 3D message is effective in a 3D medium, and compromises richness in a 2D medium.
Avoid 2D content in a 3D meeting. Reading and reviewing long reports are best done on one’s own time.
Avoid 3D content in a 2D setting. Don’t try to hash out disagreements, creative ideas and complex questions in a 2D medium. Schedule a call or meeting instead. Redirect the conversation to the more appropriate medium.

In a meeting, are you too sweet or too direct? Three key questions to ask yourself before you say something are:
Is it kind? Is it honest? Is it necessary?

The tougher you are, the more you struggle with kindness. Slow down the pace. Moving too fast can result in steamrolling and hurt feelings.

The nicer you are and the less secure you are, the more you struggle with honesty. Be willing to express what’s true. Know that specific, frank feedback is part of healthy conflict.

Over sharers, on the other hand, struggle with differentiating what’s necessary from what’s not. Hold back and ask an insightful question instead.

Just because something is kind and honest doesn’t mean it needs to be said.
Just because something needs to be said doesn’t mean it needs to be said by you.
Just because something needs to be said by you doesn’t mean it needs to be said now. You can always express it later at a more appropriate time and place, perhaps when you’re more grounded.

If you’re in a meeting where you’re not contributing or not participating, say to yourself Shouldn’t be here. SBH. Wrong time, wrong place.

Checking your digital devices and multitasking prevent you from determining whether you’re in a state of SBH. Just experience the boredom and the realization that this is not a valuable use of your time or it’s taking time away from higher value tasks.

In SBH situations, it’s better to skip the meeting than to show up, and resent your being there. Talk to the organizer, your team or your boss to negotiate and decide whether you really have to attend this real time meeting. It might be possible for you to get the meeting notes to review later and see what you can contribute.

Funt points out that organizations often try to fix an Isolated Problem: They implement No Meeting Fridays. No Emails After Hours. Or a Wellness Day with yoga mats and step trackers. But they don’t fix the underlying problem, like deciding what is the actual priority, what’s the main objective, what can they let go of?

Isolated Interventions are quick fixes to complicated issues. You need to fix the road, not the car. You address the environment and the broader state of the problem. You look at mindset, culture, and relationship with time. You cannot cut down on emails if it’s the main way to communicate in a hyperactive organization that expects and rewards immediate responses.

As a change catalyst and leader, you speak the language of the person you seek to engage. Don’t talk down to them like you’re the expert who knows better, as if the existing norms and culture serve no purpose, as if opposition to change has no solid ground. Making judgments and using force and commands don’t sit well and is bound to spark underground sabotage and outright resistance.

Find out what matters most to the people you seek to engage on a sustainable level: is it money, people or ideas?

With Finance Folks, don’t use words like stress, wellness and balance. Emphasize quantification, work flow, and the wastefulness of doing unnecessary work.

People People are the humanists, nurturers and teddy bears. Use words that convey maintaining sanity, preserving humanity, and cultivating wellness.

Idea lovers are into innovations, patents, and solutions. They will want to know that taking strategic pauses is oxygen for the creative fire.

Consider existing interests and plans and explain how certain tools, concepts and action steps for creating space serve as an accelerator. If a company wants more creative innovation and effective strategizing, thinking time helps. If a company wants to leverage higher focus and flow from their teams, thinking time helps.

Funt reminds us that making space is not just for the workplace, but also sparks high joy and deep joy at home. High joy is an experience that makes you gasp; it comes from surprise, risk and exertion. Deep joy is an experience that reaches down into your body and warms you; it comes from friendship, gratitude, giving, and peace.

In my book, The Incrementalist, I discuss how we get caught in chronic busyness. Being busy or having many responsibilities is a measure of success, which leads to overscheduling and overcommitment. You always have permission to stop, pause, slow down. Busyness every now and again is not bad. It can provide relief in the midst of a crisis and even reduce anxiety. But as a long-term strategy, it makes you less curious, less patient, less effective, and less human.

You don’t have to hit a wall or a pain point, like a health crisis, a relationship problem or burnout before you slow down and take the incrementalist approach. There are positive reasons to create space and move at a more sustainable pace. You get more fulfillment, satisfaction and success when you’re more strategic in your decisions and more deliberate in your actions.

You can do big things while you have space, gaps, buffers, and margins in your day. You can find the book at The link is in the show notes.

Regardless of when you bought the book or how much you paid, you can get updated versions of the book as long as it’s on leanpub. When you make your first purchase, leanpub creates an account for you where you can access the latest version of the book.

I plan to roll out a mini 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. I also welcome your personal stories on being caught in the busyness trap. Send me an email at

The busier you are, the more you need to step back, and think about the next steps. Thinking is invisible work, but it is has profound value. More activity does not mean you’re being more productive. Thinking time allows you to ponder, reflect, consider, reframe, visualize, generate ideas, and create real results.

If you liked this episode, please share it with your friends, colleagues and network. And subscribe to the show to receive updates on new episodes. A five-star rating and even a one-sentence review goes a long way in encouraging others to check it out. Thank you for joining me and tune in again to The Incrementalist.

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© 2021 Dyan Williams