SABINA NAWAZ : This Space Intentionally Left White
Looking for an edge over your competition? Searching for an untapped market? Try slowing down to see more, two hours at a time.
In 2004, the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave a performance of the modern classic 4′ 33″ by John Cage, a composition famous for its counterintuitive focus on the sounds of music not being played.
Cage controlled only his composition’s duration of four minutes, thirty-three seconds, not the sounds that would fill it. He believed that true silence did not exist; he wanted people to pay attention to what was all around them, to recalibrate their perceptions of sound and silence. He wanted them to hear in a new way.
I sometimes ask the executives and managers I coach to do something similarly counterintuitive. Frequently they tell me about the sacrifices they’ve made for their work: how they’ve slept only three hours the night before, haven’t exercised in months, missed their children’s games. They’re busy because their work is important. They operate under tight timelines and competitive pressures. The stakes are high.
In the midst of all this activity and pressure, there is little space to breathe. In the age of the knowledge worker, these leaders are hired for their intellectual horsepower. Yet, the demands of their jobs seem to leave no space to actually stop and think.
I recommend that, like Cage, they radically alter a small moment of time each week — to schedule a time for doing nothing but thinking — and pay attention to what emerges in the absence of the noise of their normal activity. I ask them to create white space.
Allowing for white space goes against our norms. BBC Radio’s emergency backup system, designed to play music whenever it encountered dead air, had to be switched off during the live broadcast of 4′ 33″. To create our own white space, we need to detect and shut off our emergency backup systems that urge us to do something.
A pause to breathe, some white space, gives you the opportunity to think beyond the current problems and issues. The perspective it’s given many of my clients has greatly increased their impact at work.
Susan, head of a division in a public relations company, has been keeping a white space date with herself for over a year. At first, she didn’t even know if she could be alone for 20 minutes, let alone two hours. She’d never even eaten by herself in a restaurant. After six months, her white space practice resulted in a breakthrough paper that expanded her company’s strategy to include new global markets.
Steve, a director in an IT firm, was one of the hardest working people on his company’s management team. He frequently received positive recognition for his results. Yet when his boss moved on, Steve wasn’t tapped to replace him. Why not? It seemed to his leaders that he lacked strategic thinking skills.
Convinced that something had to change, he started setting aside time for white space. At first, he lacked confidence. He even hired a consultant to help him use the time more effectively. Over several months of taking time to think, he was better able to articulate and connect strategy with the steps he asked his team to take in executing the plan. Two years later, he was promoted to the next level. His VP now taps Steve for planning discussions because of the strategic leadership and perspective he brings.
To be successful at this, you must be intentional about setting up white space:
Set aside a specific time. Find two hours a week. It’s helpful to block out times that are least likely to be requested for meetings: Friday afternoons or before colleagues arrive in the morning.
Turn off the noise. This is not the time to answer emails or tackle a long-neglected project.
Experiment until you find the right format for you. Some people stay at their computers but turn off all Internet access; others journal. Some leave the office to avoid interruptions; they go to a separate building, on a long walk, or a drive into the mountains.
Keep your white space dates. Just as you don’t build muscles by showing up sporadically at the gym, perspective isn’t something you find once and then never need to foster again.
Many managers and executives don’t take the time during their relentlessly busy schedules to let their minds wander around the edges of seemingly intractable problems. Building white space in your week lets you hear and think in a new way.