“It ain’t about the notes you play,” legendary trumpeter Miles Davis once proclaimed. “It’s about the notes you don’t play.”
In the art world, the unused space around a painted object is known as white space and is considered equally important to the image itself. The open space frames the work, providing the necessary contrast to allow the image to stand out. Think of those nearly blank print ads with a small Apple logo in the middle of a sea of white, and you’ll realize that great advertising also uses white space for impact.
If the white space creates better art, why do we pack our calendars with the same squeeze-it-all-in mentality as a game of Tetris? Our caffeine-gulping, type-A, grind-’em-up-and-spit-’em-out culture leaves about as much white space as a Times Square New Year’s Eve.
The challenge with this always-on approach is that we miss the most important opportunities to be creative. If you’re heads-down on your to-do list, you largely spend your hours on transactional work. Task-oriented. Focused on deliverables. Unfortunately, when you’re heads-down you aren’t able to notice the world around you. The opportunities to create. To advance your art. To explore the possibilities.
Compare this to heads-up time. When you lift your head up and give yourself permission to have unstructured time, you’re able to savor fresh patterns and ideas. By giving yourself some white space on the schedule, you’re not wasting time but rather putting it to a higher use. In the same way artists, musicians and poets would never clutter their work by squeezing in the maximum amount of brush strokes, notes or words, packing your schedule like a can of tuna confines rather than liberates.
In our always-on work culture, allowing for some white space is easier said than done. I suggest you start small, by taking a White Space Challenge. Try a 30-day experiment in which you carve out just 5% of your time (two hours from a 40-hour week). Schedule this time like an important, unchangeable meeting. But instead of being task-oriented, allow your mind to wander and explore. Go to a museum, take a walk, listen to music. Spend time reflecting instead of doing, just for a couple hours a week.
Miles Davis thought about musical notes as a pathway to connect periods of silence. Celebrate the holes in your schedule instead of shun them, and that white space will help you create beautiful music.