THE BLOG
01/31/2014 06:00 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2014

How to Use Personal 'Airbags' to Create Space in Daily Life

Who doesn't know the experience: Work days are filled with tasks, phone calls, appointments and meetings. One thing follows another, and once a problem has barely been solved, the next one is just around the corner. Everybody seems to want something from us.

But that's not enough: After work is done, the race continues with after-work networking, going to the gym, picking up the children from school, etc. Our days are packed to the limits, stringing together into weeks that are separated by packed weekends, making the months pass by in warp time. And just like that, once again, another new year has just begun. And so, we remain mostly externally driven and in constant reactive mode. Feelings of tightness, inner restlessness, tension, stress -- burnout in the worst case -- are the consequences.

What to do?

Well, this seems like the wrong question. It's not about doing anything in addition and thus increasing the density of tasks. Instead, it's about moving our attention to something that is mostly ignored nowadays and to progressively expand it: space.

Creating space

A while ago, I had the opportunity to witness the demonstration of an avalanche airbag. This life-saving device does not only look like a backpack but is also carried like one. When threatened to be buried by an avalanche, pulling the release cord will immediately inflate an airbag around the head and shoulders with a loud bang. This space created by the airbag can save lives in a situation that would otherwise bear the imminent risk of suffocation.

I was immediately aware of the symbolism: Metaphorically speaking, our packed days and weeks are like avalanches, rolling over our heads and burying us underneath them. As in a real avalanche, the key lays in creating space. Space between the things, between the events. Space to breathe and to respond to the events instead of just reacting to them. Or in other words, creating space between a stimulus and our reaction to it, as the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl described: "Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response."

To put it simply, it's not the conditions and situations that are responsible for our state of being, but our inner and outer reactions to them. The faster we believe we must react to an event, the higher our perceived level of stress. By creating space, we create the possibility for us to respond to the requirements of a situation in a calm way instead of just reacting to it with our conditioned patterns of behavior.

How to do it?

Let's take a practical example: Next time when your phone rings, tell yourself "STOP!" and create some space by not answering the call immediately. Maybe you use this space to consciously breathe in and out a few times. Maybe you create even more space by letting the caller leave a voicemail, giving yourself the opportunity to listen to it first and then call back when you're mentally ready for it. Besides creating space by doing so, there's another helpful effect occuring: An externally driven reaction becomes a self-driven response, moving you ahead of the wave, instead of being run over by it.

Moreover, a simple pause to reflect and recharge the batteries on a hectic day creates space and can make you recall and process ideas much better or make you feel less overwhelmed by your full inbox. No need to meditate about the vastness of the universe for an hour. Sitting in your car and closing your eyes for five minutes can be a very effective "airbag" during daily "avalanches." Just make sure your car is safely parked while doing so -- or else you might be surprised by the loud bang of a real airbag.

Make releasing your mental "airbag" a new habit and create valuable space in your daily life. They may only be small moments at the beginning, but they will gradually increase as time goes by.

What are your personal "airbags"?