How to Create White Space in Your Life

There are two ways to get enough. One is to continue to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less.
-G.K. Chesterton

I’ve always been a busy person. If there ends up being a break in the action, I take it as the perfect opportunity to do all sorts of things that I’ve been wanting to do. I have a daily to-do list, a weekly, a monthly, and, of course, a life’s checklist. I love the thrill of it all.

However, the past few months have been incredibly busy for me, busier than any in a long time. Full of dinners with friends, pro-bono design efforts, trips to the dog park, coffee dates, networking events, retreats…all on top of the normal cooking, cleaning, and laundry. I’ve been feeling rather wiped out. A few weeks ago I was speed-hiking uphill to my casual carpool pickup spot, huffing and puffing and trying to get there as quickly as possible…and then it hit me. I am ALWAYS rushing, always multi-tasking. ALWAYS. No matter what the task: taking the dog on a walk, sketching at work, watching a TV show (folding laundry or cleaning during commercials). This can’t be a good thing, right? I mean, I’m gaining efficiency, but what am I rushing towards? Apparently towards the next thing, the next to-do list item, the next level of achievement. But what does that get me?

A week or so ago Brian and I were having dinner with our friends Kate and Chris Schwass. In one of our more serious moments, Chris says (and Kate expounds):

Sometimes I imagine that my life is a piece of notebook paper. The page is full of the things that I do with my life, and yet I am always trying to write really small, cramming as much as I possibly can into every exposed margin. But I’m coming to believe that, just as in design, frequently the white space in life gives the written space more value.  The more ink you have crammed in, the less significance any of it has. White space helps us breathe, reflect, adjust, edit.

That stopped me a bit in my tracks. Sure, I want to accomplish things. Sure, I want to live life fully, vibrantly, abundantly. As I said last week, I want to be a woman of action. But, am I pursuing that so strongly that I end up doing just the opposite?

White space allows you to breathe. It allows you those unexpected, memorable moments that only come with flexibility. It cultivates spontaneity and heart-full passion. It affords you the ability to pause and recognize the value and beauty of a moment that usually passes you by.

So. I’ve been pondering this for a little while, and I’ve finally decided.

I am in pursuit of some more white space.
Those moments for rest. Those moments to enjoy fully without the panic of a to-do list. The chance for a little unexpected fun.

Now, I’m not exactly sure how to go about this, but I’ve come up with a few initial ideas.

1. Limit multi-tasking. [no cooking/phone chatting, talking to brian/texting, no working/checking email]

2. Walk slowly. If I’m late, I’m late….[my 30 second gain really isn't going to make me look any better]

3. Say ‘no’ to some things. I don’t need 4 dinner dates, 2 coffee dates, and 3 ultimate games per week. Practice saying ‘no’ and being okay with the responses.

4. Write 750 words per day. I found this website that offers a forum for a daily “brain dump,” to simply siphon off your subconscious and process thoughts. It’s been great for me, especially as a verbal processor! Starting off my morning by scribing all the things that I’m concerned with has proven an incredibly lightening effect.

5. Take a sabbath. From waking up to going to sleep, I do only what makes me come alive. [No email or phone, but anything else is fair game] Sleep in? Wander for the afternoon? Read random blogs? Try a new lunch restaurant? Read books, play ultimate frisbee, or organize my spice cabinet…all valid options.

My success has been spotty so far, but I’m working on it. Just one morning walk to work, one Sunday, and one dinner at a time.

Do you have enough white space in your life? Too much?
What sorts of things do you do to have that space? Is there something new you should start? Share your story, and let’s pursue some beautiful, clear, white space together!

 

Some additional reading if you’re intrigued:

Life’s Missing White Space

Do You Need White Space?

Feeling Stuck? 7 Ways to Make More Space in Your Life and Get Moving Again

 

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Big thanks to Kate and Chris Schwass for inspiring this post, and to Momma Mader for reading the draft!

29 thoughts on “How to Create White Space in Your Life

  1. “We don’t struggle with the Bible, but with the clock… Speeding through life endangers our relationships and our souls…Speed damages our souls because fast living consumes every ounce of our energy. Speed has a deafening roar that drowns out the whispering voices of our souls and leaves Jesus as a diminishing speck in the rearview mirror.” Michael Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality, pp. 96-97

    I think that the antidote to speed is Sabbath. By Sabbath I mean a Sabbath where, in terms of working to fulfill my own ambitions, all of my life, every moment I have is white space for God to fulfill his ambitions in and through me. This certainly doesn’t mean that I cease to work hard, just that I cease laboring for my own sake. This view of Sabbath, though not common, can be supported biblically. Here is a sermon message on this topic:

    http://www.raystedman.org/old-testament/genesis/the-seventh-day

    “So the secret of true Christian life is to cease from dependence on one’s own activity, and to rest in dependence upon the activity of Another who dwells within. That is fulfilling the sabbath, the true sabbath.” Ray Stedman

    • Btw Leah, I struggle to live this kind of Sabbath life. Thank you from prompting me to think again about this topic. I think that all of us would do well to pursue what you are pursuing — not just white space completely filled with good things that we seize by our own efforts, but contentment with the fruit that come forth from living to the glory of God. I pray that we will not be double-minded about these matters.

      • Wow, great comments, Stan! Thank you for sharing the links. I especially like, “Speed has a deafening roar that drowns out the whispering voices of our souls.”

    • The idea of sabbath as complete rest from our own, self-serving ambitions, thus making our lives into white space for God to paint on in and through us — this introduces possibilities, this enables supernatural mystery to come into play in our lives. This concept of white space may seem quite foreign to Western art. It is not so foreign to Asian art. Here is something that was put together to describe an exhibit of twentieth century Chinese painting called, “The Mystery of Empty Space”:
      http://www.heweimin.org/Texts/mystery_of_empty_space.pdf

      The idea of qi reminds me that “He himself is before all things and all things are held together in him.” (Colossians 1:17) Thus, white space in my life has meaning when it is not totally void (a kind of white noise wasteland), but simply empty of the noise of the world so that I can better experience the mystery of my connection to Christ.

    • I LOVE that parable! I read it recently in Four Hour Work Week and it has stuck with me ever since. How much do we truly need? What are our goals? Are we working towards some things that we actually don’t care about?

      Big questions….and I only have time to ponder them in the white space. :)

  2. Leah,
    I love this. Such a hard thing to accept and put into action. I am such a pencil and paper/list person as well. Something that has helped me before is to specifically write in my planner “sabbath” or words that remind me what I must (or in this case must not do!). Or I’ll cross it out so I don’t plan anything for that day. Mind you, I’m not very good at it. :) Life gets so busy and it’s worth saying no to things for yourself. I have to remind myself that there’s more days and more times to get together with others or finish the tasks I’d like to.
    Thanks for sharing! :) When I pray for myself about these things, I shall pray for you too! Love ya!

    • Hey Krista!
      Thank you so much for sharing. I haven’t tried physically writing on my calendar, but it’s proving to be a common theme amongst friends. I’ll have to try that too!

  3. I had that same realization a while ago and I’m so glad I did. I had a day when I realized I wasn’t enjoying the activities in my life simply because there were too many. Unfortunately my realization came along with being “burnt out” on all of it. So, I stopped. It was a great feeling to relax into my normal routine and I enjoyed it so much that I closely guard my “white space” or free time now. I will say that I had a few relapses along the way but K.C. is so “slow” that sometimes I have speed him up. We balance each other out and for me it brings so much more appreciation into every day.

    • I’ve been feeling rather burnt out lately too. It’s so hard not to! Luckily, I’m also married to someone who slows me down….and looks at me like I’m crazy when I tell him the 23 things I plan on accomplishing in a day. :)

  4. Awesome blog post. Tina and I were just talking to the students about white space in their graphic layouts – what a great way to think about it for your life. I definitely need some white space in my life! Thanks for the inspiration. :-)

  5. Great stuff, Leah. It’s amazing how simple of a truth this is, how blatantly it’s called for in life’s instruction book, yet how easily we all ignore it. Thanks to Kate and Chris for inspiring your inspirational post! ….now if I can only apply what I’ve learned here today….

  6. I actually find balance by multi-tasking and being super efficient for a period so that I can be a lazy, white space abuser for the remainder…. It’s works pretty well for me.

  7. Here’s another thought. We normally think of white space in a painting — a form of static white space. What does white space in a dynamic context look like. Something comparable to white space in music or in dance? White space in relation to rhythm. I think Derick’s comment begins to touch on this dynamic. After all, real life is very much dynamic.

  8. I read this article that you referred to on Facebook, “How to Retrain Your Response to Stress/Fatigue.” Here is a quote from the article:

    “What the scientists studying toughening have found is that a somewhat similar process of challenge and psychological loading followed by recovery can tune our brain and nervous system so that we too approach stressors with resilience and an optimal mix of hormones, neuromodulators, and nervous-system activation.”

    This idea of stress, recovery, stress recovery gets at the idea of dynamic white space in our lives. With respect to the dynamics of our lives, the word that best represents white space is stillness — a cessation of our movement. Stillness also refers to a cessation of our production of sound — in particular a cessation of speech. Stillness also refers to a cessation of the production of thoughts — we can stop moving and stop talking and still be busy in our thoughts. As Christians, we move into white space when we choose to be lonely — that is alone and disconnected from the world; yet at the same time choosing to be still in the presence of God. I believe that this kind of prayerful stillness forms recovery/white space for Christians.

    Speaking of recovery, I think that one of the most important aspects of recovery for the Christian is reconciliation. I am not sure how this fits in with your concept of white space, but ceasing from sin and confessing and repenting of sins past creates stillness of soul. We experience white space when we are washed clean of our sins. In a way, God’s forgiving, redeeming presence creates white space where there was none before. “So then, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; what is old has passed away – look, what is new has come!”

    Here is another quote from the article:

    “Familiar voices and happy faces let our brain stem know that fight-or-flight is not needed. If you are blessed with a calm family and friends whose fortunes are uncorrelated with your own, it can help enormously in times of stress just to look into their faces and listen to their happy voices, rather than staring at your BlackBerry, gnawing on your fingernails and ruminating over past outrages.”

    To me, this quote underlines the importance of joy-lovingness in the Christian life. White space is not merely absence and disconnection. White space has no meaning in a painting all by itself. White space is, well, white, and it has a certain shape defined by the colored in portions of the painting. But aesthetically, white space serves a purpose in terms of the composition of the picture as a whole. Your definition of white space is more personal/individual. But I think we can also be white space for others – giving up advancing our own agendas to offer a joy-lovingness recovery space for those dealing with unrelenting stress. This joy-lovingness would be anchored in Christ and thus uncorrelated with the fortunes or misfortunes of others.

    There is a single word that describes this agenda-less joy-lovingness white space for others, particularly for the weak and insignificant — that word is hospitality. It is a requirement for Christian leadership. Hospitality involves “the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them a space where change can take place.” Henri Nouwen.

  9. In light of our many conversations surrounding this topic lately…I think you are on to something. Less is more. Simple is better. Discover what fills your soul.

  10. Great subject and great discussion…even if I am late to the party. As I have committed myself to watercolor more since it will likely be my 401k plan,…the thought of white space and the comment about it in painting challenged me. I would agree that the music is probably a much better vehicle to demonstrate WS (I don’t want to type it out on my phone). I believe that BB King and Stuart Copeland (Drummer for The Police) said essentially the same thing: it’s the notes they don’t play that creates space.
    With ADD, I realize that I can get lost in the white space…even in a crowded room…but also find many beautiful truths while there. Contentment is a disciplined understanding of less is more.

    • Never too late to the party, Greg! I would love to see some of your watercolors…especially as you study the white space within them. I’m going to use that quote in the future: “Contentment is a disciplined understanding of less is more.”

  11. It’s great to see the conversation you sparked, Leah. I see several great metaphors from art and music. I think operating under the right metaphor when dealing with something we can’t control or fully understand like time makes all the difference. If our goal is to consume time, we treat it like an all-you-can-eat buffet. White space is empty plate space. When our time is art instead of fuel, when it is meant to be presented with delight (to God) rather than consumed personally, it takes on a different meaning. I hope everyone’s thoughts remind me often to be a better curator of time.

    • “When our time is art instead of fuel….” I hadn’t put it together so concisely in my head yet – but what a thought. It truly makes you consider every moment as significant, and yet relinquishes the need to fill it with noise.

  12. Thanks for such a great piece, Leah. After receiving the link to your posting from my studio instructor JP two months ago, I finally found some peaceful white space to read and enjoy it without worry of what’s due next. I’m working on creating some more white space in life and finding a balance of work, personal care, and fun while getting used to the MLA program.
    I enjoyed looking at your blog and now have some good ideas of places to check out during our studio field trip to San Fran this Fall. Again, thanks for the words of wisdom.
    Best,
    Sara

    • Thanks so much for your words, Sara! I’m happy to hear that the discussion on white space is making a difference in your life, as it has in mine. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to meet you in person when you and the UF class visit SF!

      -Leah

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