A Minute to Think: Reclaiming Some Space in Your Busy Life

By Cathy Gassenheimer
Executive Vice President
Alabama Best Practices Center

When can something you consider to be a positive actually become a negative? According to Juliet Funt, author of A Minute to Think: Reclaim Creativity, Conquer Busyness, and Do Your Best Work, our admirable traits become less admirable when we take them to the extreme.

In her book, Funt urges us to find “white space” in all we do. Space to think, space to prioritize, space to communicate more effectively, and space to enjoy family, life, and hobbies. Funt labels these spaces “wedges.”

Wedges can be just a few seconds, or a longer chunk of time that you intentionally take to improve  your decision making or action taking. Making these spaces “gives your spark some oxygen,” as she says in this animated trailer.

A wedge could be a “think loop” where you pause and reflect before saying something that might be hurtful or incorrect. It could be a short walk when you’re finding yourself stuck. It could be scheduling a few minutes each day to reflect and plan – or pausing to do a quick, fun brain game that helps shift your gears.

When Our Good Traits Turn Sour

Funt – a trainer and consultant focused on creativity, productivity and engagement – argues that “wedges” help us regulate four important engines of motivation that she suggests can become counterproductive when taken to the extreme: Drive. Excellence. Information. Activity.

We benefit from our personal drive, but not when we keep it in overdrive. The same is true for excellence. The pursuit of excellence is good, but not when we won’t accept anything less than perfection. We need information to make decisions, but too much information can be counterproductive and lead to a mental overload that sucks the fresh air out of our thinking. And, finally, we all want to be active and productive, but not when the activity shifts – as she says – into a “downright frenzy.”

Four Questions to Balance the Drivers

One of the ways to ensure that we manage these four motivational drivers (and they don’t manage us) is by creating white space. This can begin with what Funt calls “De-crapifying your workflow.” We do that when when we use “reductive thinking” and invite ourselves to discover the things we can thrive without doing or afford to put on a wait list.

“Think for a minute about that satisfying feeling when you clean out a garage. You find treasure among the holiday decor and boxes, but one find is far more valuable than the rest—the space itself. When we stand before a freshly emptied room, we instantly feel thrilled about all its possibilities. Your workday can feel the same, but only if you are willing to be reductive.” (Source)

We use reductive thinking by asking these questions:

Drive: Is there anything I can let go of?

Excellence: When is good enough, good enough?

Information: What do I truly need to know?

Activity: What deserves my energy and attention?

Funt has tagged these four the Thieves of Time. “Despite being positive and helpful in their basic nature, these forces are also the biggest reason that white space disappears,” she says.

Use a Yellow List

Perhaps the best suggestion from Funt’s NBIC podcast about her book is #4 – using a Yellow List to manage the ubiquitous and overwhelming amount of digital communication streaming through our personal and professional lives.

A yellow list captures all those interactions that don’t require immediate response and can be addressed later via phone call, meet-up, or a consolidated email. (While Funt doesn’t explain how she came up with the name, my guess is that she records those items on a yellow legal pad or spiral notebook.)

Funt imagines a group of yellow lists, with each one dedicated to a frequent interacter: family member, boss, employee, BFF, etc.

“It’s used to collect all non-time sensitive questions, ideas, and issues for anyone you connect with frequently. You can keep one list per person, or a master list separated by first names,” she says.

Of course, there are instances when you will need to phone or text about time sensitive matters. Or email to confirm, attach a file, create a timely record, etc. But we have many less urgent communications flying by us that can land on our yellow list.

“When your Yellow List lengthens, schedule a few minutes to share it with the appropriate person. You’ll see how talking these items through is fast, easy, and efficient.”

You can clear your yellow list through a live call or a well-organized/bulleted email that can be both a time-saver and a productivity tool. An added bonus of using the yellow list is that your colleagues will appreciate not receiving as many emails from you!

Finding Balance in the White Spaces

Carving out time for ourselves and for others can make for a better, more productive, and happier life. As Dan Pink wrote in his back-cover blurb, Juliet Funt’s message is not just about “getting more and better work done.” A Minute to Think, Pink says, “is a powerful meditation on the false lure of busyness and the sustaining power of the pause” and “essential reading for maddening times.”