Don’t let busyness rob you of productivity—or your dream.

julietJuliet Funt is a self-described warrior in the battle against “reactive busyness” who has made a business of helping organizations unburden their talent to unlock potential. And at the center of her signature strategy is something she calls “white space,” which ultimately allows companies to achieve their missions.

So how does it impact individuals? To explore the potential for white space, Beth Taska, executive vice president of Human Potential at 24 Hour Fitness, asked Funt what it is, what it does and how it works.

Beth Taska (BT): When you talk about white space, what is your perspective?

Juliet Funt (JF): White space is a strategic pause taken between activities. So the white-space time in your day is the time that is in between the activities of your busy, busy day. And we find that people who extend this time slightly, who take those moments to pause, to breathe, to reorient, to strategize, have a completely different level of effectiveness and clarity in the way that they work.

BT: If we stop and think about it, we often find ourselves busy for reasons besides getting things done—and even busy with things that are destructive or that don’t serve a purpose. Do you think we are busy not only to show we’re successful but also to avoid something?

JF: I think we avoid all sorts of things through busyness. We avoid grief, loneliness, separation and isolation. We avoid looking at our own guilt and shame about things that we’re not doing with our lives. And all of that can be happily numbed away by just checking your email one more time and running to the car.

There actually is a physiological reason that we’re drawn toward all the technology that fills in our white space—we get a hit of dopamine with each text or email response. When you’re on the white-water ride of busyness, it is viscerally fun, and you can keep pursuing that high point and just kind of try to ignore the cost, the lull, the racing heartbeat and the need for caffeine. When we take a pause from that dopamine, we experience a dopamine lull and it feels kind of gray and blue, and the world gets slow and you want to go to sleep, and it’s no wonder that you pick up your phone again.

The world is also structured to reward us for quantity, from how many friends we have to how many awards and stuff you can show on Facebook. In fact, we did research and we found that there were 33 factors driving our focus on quantity-based rewards systems, from the economy to the leadership behavior of your senior leaders to your own personality.

BT: What’s the price of being so busy—are there consequences that we might not even recognize?

JF: It’s a huge blind spot worth talking about: the fact that we send so many emails, we sit in so many meetings, we do so many reports, and we allow ourselves to live fire drill to fire drill. In the world of manufacturing, where optimization is really important, nothing is wasted, including time. But when you have human beings doing unnecessary tasks, we’ve all been so acculturated to feel like this busyness is what we should be doing, that we never step back and just do that math and say, “This person’s time value per hour is X, and they’re wasting this amount of time per week on unnecessary work.” Not to mention the burnout costs, the human costs.

Busyness in the workplace also creeps into other parts of our lives, like exercise, where we’re monitoring our heart rate and listening to a podcast and messaging on Facebook. You have to do what you need to do to get yourself going, whether that’s listening to music or a podcast. But if you can even let yourself have 30 seconds in the stretch room when you’re stretching and not multitasking or if you can allow yourself to have a quiet walk to the car that’s a little slower than maybe you would normally have to walk to the car to just have that wonderful feeling of, “I’m hot and I’m sweaty, and I did it,” there’s a little white space there.

BT: Some of us might be thinking it sounds a little counterintuitive to do less in order to be more productive. So how does that work at the office and at home?

JF: In the workplace, where we’re invited to all these meetings and getting a hundred emails a day, we’re subjected to an onslaught that makes us feel like we’re individually responsible for surmounting these crazy circumstances with grace. If we do more green juice, exercise more, meditate more, than maybe we could be serene and have white space in our crazy jobs. We live on exertion and forget there’s a different kind of fuel available, which is to be thoughtful. And someone needs to change the crazy job itself, which is why WhiteSpace at Work—my company—was created, to help organizations change to a thoughtful and therefore more effective and productive culture.

We have to make very grand white-space gestures in our personal lives, as well. For example, my husband and I have dishes in the sink seven days out of seven because it’s more important to sit on the floor with the kids for 20 minutes. We have a much less grand idea of entertaining than we used to, when I was younger, because it’s just more important not to get up an extra hour early to make up something from scratch. All those sacrifices are in pursuit of a lifestyle that is calmer.

Photo credit: 123RF, Piotr Wawrzyniuk