Please note that a previous version of this blog post called blank space “white space.” I am incredibly grateful to two of my friends who reached out to inform me that the term “white space” is connected to racist exclusion. I intend to revise my back posts that say “white space” and to use the phrase “blank space” moving forward. To read more about the use of “white space” in terms the perpetuation of racism via access to space and place, check out Dr. Elijah Anderson’s work, including this digital piece.
Living with chronic pain and illness means it is very important for me to respect my energy expenditure throughout my day.
When I first developed my health issues, I had to address the unsustainability of working 12 straight hours a day, which led me to perform a full inventory of my workaholic tendencies (you can read about that here and here). I’ve come a long way since then, and in addition to prioritizing my must-do tasks each day, the next best way I protect my energy is to include blank space in my daily schedule.
What’s Blank Space?
Blank space is literally the space that remains blank on your calendar between meetings, appointments, and other responsibilities. I love the way that personal development researcher Kelly Exeter writes about blank space on her blog (she calls it “white space”). She gives us a suggestion on how to find blank space by not packing our days so full that we can’t have time to breathe: “Instead of using productivity to fit more stuff into our days, we need to use productivity to create pockets of space in our days where we have permission to be unproductive.”
The key to making blank space beneficial is intentionality. Like Exeter says, we need to give ourselves permission to take breaks from generating output.
What Blank Space Looks Like for Me
I wrote in my first theme word check in of the year that I wanted to prioritize blank space more. Here are a few reasons why:
- It helps me keep my workaholism in check, because I am reinforcing the habit of stepping away from my work to rest versus powering through for hours and hours.
- It allows me to rest my physical body by laying down, taking walks, and stretching. I wouldn’t do these things if I was just taking a five minute break between Pomodoro work sessions.
- It allows me to conserve my spoons (emotional/mental/physical energy) throughout the day so they aren’t all used up by the time I want to do non-work activities like hanging with friends or hobbies.
Prioritizing blank space in your days is an intentional decision, and if it’s something you’ve never done before, it might feel uncomfortable at first. When I first started including blank space in my days, I didn’t immediately feel the results that I feel now—I felt selfish and lazy. On further reflection, I realized that those negative self perceptions were tied to capitalism, internalized ableism, and workaholic beliefs that I only matter if I am working, or that I don’t deserve to rest and recharge. Thankfully, I was able to shift my perspective and make blank space a non-negotiable.
When you preserve blank space in your schedule, the aim is to intentionally block off time where you are not tied to an activity or responsibility. It’s up to you if you prefer to title that time as “blank space” or “rest” or “down time,” or to simply leave it unnamed and allow the visual blank space to speak for itself.
Below are three different ways that you can start incorporating blank space into your days:
Look at your schedule for the next week and see if you can rearrange things to allow yourself some blank space. Are there days where you’re booked back-to-back without a break? If you work full-time, you might not be able to fit in an hour-long walk during the day, but would it be possible to schedule in a 20-minute rest? If you do make your own schedule, is it possible to shift some tasks that aren’t must-dos to another day, allowing yourself to have some time to rest and recharge between meetings or work sessions?
When you’re making your schedule, try to protect blank space from the beginning. If you’re booking an appointment or meeting and you have the choice of when it can take place, try to allow yourself adequate time so you aren’t rushing from one thing to the next. Give yourself small pockets of time between tasks so you will have time to move slowly, and use that extra time to do things like drink a glass of water or stretch.
You might find that deadlines or urgent tasks require you to use your blank space to complete work tasks. While this isn’t ideal, it’s also okay, because the blank space is meant to help you stay calmer in the first place. That being said, don’t fill up your blank space with tasks just because you can. If you’re driving to an appointment, don’t try to squeeze in errands that fill up your whole blank space window just because you have the time. Instead, see if you can protect that time and use it to drink a cup of tea and rest.