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Nora T. Akins Headshot

Where's the White Space?

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The work world is smaller and spinning faster than ever. Many of us keep up by moving faster, doing more work with fewer people and modifying processes to minimize cost. That is what makes profits grow. But it may not distinguish us from others.

Imagine if you could stop time for an hour. Chances are most of us would use that hour to clean off our desks, reply to emails or perform other tasks that give us a false sense of accomplishment. Since information is coming faster than ever, you would gain little ground with that spent hour. An empty inbox and a cleared desk are neither urgent nor important, but they provide a false sense of completion.

Triage is a medical term used to establish medical priority in order to increase the number of survivors. That empty inbox has a short survival period. Understanding the difference between urgent and important is the key element in organizing your work time. Building white space into our calendars is a lost art.

The purpose of white space is to provide think time. Building white space is bigger than an appointment with ourselves. Have the courage to turn your back on your monitor and put your smartphone away. Allow yourself time to just think.

Use your white space to think. Thinking about what is most important may simply be revealing what issues are at hand. Making time to clarify a problem is productive. As G. K. Chesterton said,

It isn't that they can't see the solution. It's that they can't see the problem.

Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is 25-years old. Theories in this book have been referenced for decades. Have companies forgotten about the P/PC balance? It's balance Production by Production Capability.

Covey used the fable of the goose who laid the golden egg to describe the effects of not respecting the producing asset. Once the farmer destroyed the goose in an effort to get all the eggs, he lost what produced the eggs. The poor farmer already became rich. Did he lose sight of his goal? Did the farmer get caught up in more, more, faster, faster; seeing a result that no longer had meaning?

Some organizations reward the self-sacrificial busy employee; the one who puts in more hours than others. Those organizations may be like the farmer, losing sight of the desired result. Rewarding long hours over quality results will send the golden geese to competitors. The organization will be left with those who feel entitled and indispensable due to their personal sacrifice of a time commitment.

Covey recommends balancing the desired result and the production capability. Most organizations understand the need to conduct preventative maintenance on machines. Covey's quadrant II is for tasks that are important and not urgent. For a manager, it may be reading a business journal or learning a conflict resolution technique. Humans need preventative maintenance, too. It makes us work smarter and it requires white space.