Life’s Missing White Space — A Guest Post

by Katy on September 17, 2010 · 6 comments

The following is written by Leo Babauta from Zen Habits. There’s a quote in it that really resonates with me, which is:

“When our days are non-stop busy, everything is important and nothing is important.”

I’ve been taking advantage of the free time afforded by the kids being back in school to get a ton of stuff done, but as a result my days have been go, go, go. I need to take time to relax and enjoy the life I’ve worked so hard to create.

Thank you very much to Leo Babauta for sharing his column with The Non-Consumer Advocate community.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”

‘Space is the breath of art.’ ~Frank Lloyd Wright

Post written by Leo Babauta.

I’m not a designer, but I’ve always been in love with the design concept of white space.

It’s the space in a design that isn’t filled with things — as you can tell from the design of Zen Habits and my other blog, mnmlist, it’s something I use (perhaps too) liberally.

But white space can be used in the design of our lives as well, not just the design of magazines and websites and ads. By using white space in our lives, we create space, balance, emphasis on what’s important, and a feeling of peace that we cannot achieve with a more cramped life.

Let’s look briefly at how to do this.

The principles of white space

Some of the things white space accomplishes in design:

  • greater legibility
  • feeling of luxury
  • breathing room & balance
  • more emphasis

These same concepts can translate to our lives:

  • Clarity. Instead of legibility, white space can give clarity to the things in our lives — whether they’re possessions, projects, tasks, or just things that occupy our time and attention. A nice piece of furniture is more beautiful when it’s not surrounded by clutter. A well-prepared piece of food is more tasty when it’s not smothered in sauces and piled with fries and cheese. A presentation is more effective when we don’t use Powerpoint and have only a few points to make.
  • Peace. When our lives are cramped, and our homes and workspaces are cluttered, we feel stressed. When we have fewer things on our schedule and fewer things around us, we feel peaceful.
  • Breathing room & balance. Many people talk about finding “work-life balance”, but this is very hard to do if you have no white space. Leave space between things to find the breathing room you need, and to easier achieve balance.
  • Emphasis on the important. When our days are non-stop busy, everything is important and nothing is important. But put white space between things, and those things acquire more weight, and we place more importance on each individual thing.

Achieving white space

In theory, achieving white space isn’t difficult: you remove non-essential items from your life, your workday, your surroundings, your possessions, and leave the essential items with space around them.

But of course in practice it’s a bit different, and requires experimentation, learning, practice. I’d suggest starting small, with one area of your life, and making small bits of white space. Start by identifying what’s important, and the slowly removing the non-essential things to create the white space.

Some ideas:

  • Breathe. Simply take a couple minutes between tasks, meetings, anything that you do, to breathe. After a meeting, for example, return to your desk and just sit still for a couple minutes, focusing on your breath going in and out. When you get home, pause and breathe. When you’re done with a task on the computer, close everything and breathe, before starting on the next task. This creates space between tasks and allows you to focus on each one.
  • Schedule. Don’t overschedule. Leave space on your schedule, between tasks, instead of putting things back-to-back. The space gives you time to go between tasks, to recover, to refocus, to breathe.
  • Projects. Do fewer projects at a time. Instead of juggling a bunch of projects at once, try to do one for as long as you can before switching to the next (sometimes you need to switch because you’re waiting on information or on someone else to do something). If you can, take a short break between each project — as long as you can afford.
  • Sit. Start your day with the white space of just sitting still for 10 minutes. It can be a meditation session, or simply sitting still with a cup of coffee or tea. If you like this, try putting it in the middle and end of your day as well.
  • Remove clutter. Pick a few important things on your desk, or in your home, and remove the rest. This will give you visual space and create a more peaceful atmosphere.
  • Savor. Slow down and savor everything you eat, everything you do. Breathe before you take each bite, and enjoy each bite.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Sara September 17, 2010 at 5:23 pm

I love this post and this concept. We just moved and got rid of lots of clutter so now I can actually see the things we use and love. Our new house is on lake with a pretty view and I’ve felt the urge each morning to sit down with my coffee facing out the window and just watch the ducks. It *does* make me feel more peaceful but it is also hard to silence that voice inside me that urges me to get moving, as if I can’t relax until all the unpacking is done 🙂


Laura September 17, 2010 at 5:35 pm

Thanks for this post! It is exactly what I needed to read right now. With our girls back in school I thought I’d have lots of time, but it’s been nothing but errands, etc. and I feel like every moment has been scheduled. On top of that it’s our “turn” again for our annual school auction (middle daughter’s class is the chief beneficiary) and I’ve been asked to head up class fundraising for their 8th grade overseas trip as well.

STOP! and breathe is what I told myself today, but was still feeling a little guilty about it, like if I don’t do something I’ll be letting people down. After reading this I know I should let go of some things, let others pick up the slack, and create some white space for myself and my family. I’ll accomplish a lot more for everyone, not just me, in the long run.


Practical Parsimony September 18, 2010 at 8:38 am

White space is like punctuation in a sentence–it gives clarity to what comes before and after. White separates entities just like a period. White space is like a comma at a breathing place. White space is like a colon; it separates a promise from the fulfillment; it separates the minutes from the hours. A colon points the way to something else. White space is like a semicolon because it connects parallel structures without letting them run together. I could go on; I won’t.

Most people disregard punctuation or dismiss it as unimportant. The same is true of white space, and meditation. People want to rush through sentences breathlessly just like people try to accomplish everything in a mad rush of multi-tasking. I was this way once upon a time. And, I was terribly good at it. Now, I must stop my mad dashes because I cannot dash about any longer!

Punctuation has never been a problem. I am an English teacher, so I know why we stop and take time in a sentence. Now, we all need to learn to stop and do nothing, breathe a bit, and separate the mad moments of our lives. Maybe those mad moments would seem sane again?

Sorry this reply is so long.


Tracy Balazy September 20, 2010 at 4:06 am

No, your post isn’t too long! You make good points. I’m a former copy editor, and I can relate to your comments about punctuation. And about decluttering one’s personal life!

Katy, thanks for running Leo Babauta’s blog. It and the blogs to which he listed links inspired me to do some house-decluttering today!


Alison September 21, 2010 at 4:32 am

Practical Parsimony – I love your well-punctuated comments. I wonder if it’s hard to teach correct punctuation if students have lost their sense of how a sentence should flow, i.e. where pauses/punctuation should naturally fall.


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