Life feeling too tight? Let’s talk about Negative Space

July 24, 2023

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Why does life still feel too tight and frantic even after you’ve done a good job saying yes and no to things? 

It’s common. 

Let’s talk about Negative Space and, practically, how you can build yours in to get your life feeling more how you want it to.

Mentioned on episode:

The Mom Hour Podcast, which you can find here: https://themomhour.com/

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Full Transcript

Episode 13. Saying No Still Not Getting Enough Breathing Space Do This

[Upbeat Intro Music]

Kelly Nolan: Welcome to The Bright Method Podcast where we’ll discuss practical time management strategies designed for the professional working woman. I’m Kelly Nolan, a former patent litigator who now works with women to set up The Bright Method in their lives. The Bright Method is a realistic time management system that helps you manage it all, personally and professionally. Let’s get you falling asleep proud of what you got done today and calm about what’s on tap tomorrow. All right, let’s dig in!


Hey, hey! All right, so today we’re gonna talk about basically getting more breathing space in your life. What I really mean by this is sometimes we’ve gotten intentional. We’ve really tried to say yes to the things that light us up and no to the things that don’t, but life still feels too compact, too tight, too frantic maybe, just kind of packed too tight, and we can’t really figure out where to go from there because we’ve been doing a good job of saying no. We’ve maybe got some stuff off our plate, but we’re really focused on what we say yes and no to, but we’re not feeling like it’s getting us to where we want life to feel. We don’t have kind of the space, the wiggle room, the flex time, just the general ability to breathe that we crave, and that is very understandable, very common, and what we’re gonna talk about today.

Focus on the Negative Space – 1:20

So I’m gonna take you, first, on what’s gonna sound like a total tangent but is relevant, so just stick with me. Back in college, I took a drawing 101-type class, and I remember the professor emphasizing the importance of “negative space.” For those of you who are not artistic (basically like I am. I’ve taken a couple art things, and I enjoy art, but it’s not something I specialize in), negative space is the space around and between the main subjects of your drawing. And the reason it’s really important when you’re drawing is — this is the part that I think is cool — is that when you’re drawing and you kind of feel lost in your drawing because you’re trying to draw one thing or a couple things and it’s just not coming out the way you want it to, maybe the proportions are off, things just don’t look realistic, but you keep trying to focus on the proportions of the thing, and you keep not nailing it, and it’s getting frustrating, that’s when you want to focus on the negative space. You want to stop looking so hard at the subjects of your painting or your drawing and instead paint or draw the spaces between them. So if you think of a coffee mug, it might be the negative space between the handle of the mug and then the mug itself. So that kind of, I don’t know, circley, wobbly shape, you want to focus on drawing that, and that will start helping your actual mug part of the drawing be in the proportion that you want it to be and, overall, your whole piece of art will be more what you want it to be.

So there’s real value in steering your focus away from the things (the subjects that you’re drawing) and more to the negative space of whatever you’re drawing. This can make your piece of art more realistic or more what you want it to be and, overall, it will feel more like what you’re going for.

I always found that really interesting, such a creative, different approach to getting — I mean, I am someone who it just wouldn’t occur to me to do that. I would just keep banging my head and looking at the coffee mug and trying to draw it again and again in the right way, and it was such a useful, practical, effective strategy to help me draw in the way that I wanted to was focusing on the negative space. I believe how we manage our time is similar. We can really borrow from that concept in time management so that we feel like our life is more like we want it to be.

In terms of time management, the actual events, the actual projects, the tasks, the activities that we sign up for, sign our kids up for, or all that kind of stuff, those are the subjects of our time management piece of art. I haven’t really thought that one out, but let’s pretend we’re doing a time management piece of art. Those things are the subjects of our art piece. This is the stuff that we tend to focus on when we talk about time management. It makes a ton of sense. We’re like, “What do we say yes to? What do we say no to?” We’re really focusing on the subjects and what subjects, basically, we want to put in our piece of art.

I agree with that. I think that it is really smart to think about that. We need to think intentionally about what we let into our piece of art. But we also shouldn’t just focus on the subjects. We need to focus on the equally-important component which is the no-plans, breathing space between those subjects, which is the negative space. So we can think of this as time management negative space.

If you’re feeling like you can’t make your life or your schedule what you want it to be, I want you to focus on intentionally putting in negative space in the ways we’re gonna talk about today. That’s really what I — I think you get it at this point, but just to hit it home. It is the space around and between the things you have or want to do, and by intentionally putting that into our lives, that can bring the whole piece of art, the whole schedule, the whole time-management piece of art back into balance, for lack of a better word, but more in the proportions of things we want, the overall piece of art (subjects and negative space) will all kind of come together in a way that feels better for us, that looks in that more artistic-feel way, more like we want it to.

A Practical Approach to Negative Space – 5:31

So practically, what does that mean? Because up until now, I think everything I’ve said probably makes sense, but you’re like, “Yeah, but I’ve been trying to build in breathing space this whole time.” So how does this shift practically into a different and greater approach than what we’ve talked about in the past?

First, I want you to get clear on what negative space you want and then we’re gonna build it in and protect it. But this might look different than what you’ve done in the past, so stick with me. For example, (this is just an example) you could ask yourself instead of just what do I want to say yes and no to throughout the week for evening activities, I want you to think about how many nights a week do you want to have no plans.

So if you are single and going out like I used to do even when I was practicing law and working all the time, I would still go out for happy hours or things like that, meet up with friends, that kind of stuff. If that’s your life, what I want you to think about is do I want — I mean, if you’ve been enjoying what you’re doing, keep going. I’m not saying you have to change anything. But let’s say you’ve been feeling more run down, life feels too frantic, you’re not fully enjoying things. What I want you to think about is do I want to have two nights a week where I come home and I have no plans? Obviously you have to maybe cook dinner and things like that, but no one-off plans with anybody else.

If you have young kids where you’re more in control of the number of activities you sign up for and how many nights that means you’re away and things like that, you might also want to think about how many nights do we want to be home. Feel free to go for all of them. I know that I’ve heard from some more experienced moms, I’ve listened to some podcast episodes, especially on The Mom Hour which is a super great podcast for those with kids. Just a random plug. If you have kids, what I want you to think about is — if you have the ability to control this — how many nights do we want to have activities after school. So this probably is more for younger-kid parents versus more like middle school or high school where I feel like those sports can kind of take on a life of their own, but if you have control over the activities in a real way, you might want to think about how many nights, how many evenings and afternoons do we want to have no plans and go from there. So you might decide two nights a week, three nights a week, four nights a week, even five we don’t want to have after school activities, and therefore, let’s be intentional about that.

The reason you want to think these through is what I, then, want you to do is actually block those in your calendar. So you can kind of start with a guess. You’re like, “Mm, let’s say Tuesdays and Thursdays we’re not gonna have any activities,” so I’m gonna put in from whenever the relevant time is to roughly when I go to bed time: “No activities. Stay home.” You can always move these around. So these are kind of your default reminders to not fill up every evening of your week with activities. You can always move them around. So if something comes up on a Tuesday that you really do want to go to, you can say yes to it, put that in your calendar, and move that no-activity time to another night. But then when something comes up for (let’s say you move it to a Wednesday) that Wednesday, you can see, “Oh, I said nothing else, and I don’t have anywhere else for me to move that, so I’m gonna say no.”

Now, that doesn’t mean you have to say no. This is a totally-you decision, but I really believe that having that visual reminder in your calendar helps you save yourself from yourself and really like, “You know what? I really do want that breathing space in my life, so I’m going to say no to these plans.”

Same goes for kids’ things. You might just put it in for, again, let’s go with Tuesday/Thursday, if you’ve picked two nights a week, then something comes up that really is awesome on a Tuesday, move it. You can put something in that Tuesday slot, but move that no-activity time to another time so that when you’re looking at other activities to sign up maybe a different kid for, you still have that visual reminder in your calendar of what you’re going for. The whole point of this is just to help future you build that negative space into the overall drawing so that life feels more like what you want it to feel like.

Visual Reminder Helps us Prioritize Better – 9:42

The reason that I love this is that by having that visual reminder in your calendar, it also forces you to prioritize better. Really, more what I’m thinking about here is if you go back to that priority episode (I think it’s episode four), really kind of using that analogy is you might have been operating under the assumption that you had a car-load of space to fill with evening activities, and you did because you, all five nights a week, were open. But once you’re like, “You know what? That wasn’t really working for me. I actually only want to do things two nights a week. I’m gonna protect three nights a week for home,” then suddenly we’re working with a carry-on sized piece of luggage, and the decisions you make about what to put in there change because you have to be more intentional and discerning about what you put in there.

So by making it visual in that way, then you’re really helping out future you make those decisions and be more intentional with them and always remind her of them so that it’s not just kind of floating around in your head, and you always have to remember, “Wait, nope. I want to be home three nights a week. I know I want to be home three nights a week.” By putting these default building blocks in our calendar, we’re helping us get there.

So, similarly along these lines, you can think about how many hours each weekend day do you want to have no plans. I’ve had a client — I might have shared this before. I just think it was so brilliant. She would protect two hours every weekend day of unstructured time because she needed that breathing space. So she was kind of already thinking ahead to this of that negative space, that you don’t need to make plans, even fun plans, even just plans that you want to do, you don’t have to decide what that is, but really building in that negative space into your weekend will make those weekend days have that breathing space that you’re looking for.

Decide How Many No-Travel Weekends You Want – 11:25

Similarly, this is a big one for me that I’ve done just newly this summer, is how many weekends a summer do you not want to travel and be home? That one’s huge. We had a really busy summer last summer, and it made a lot of sense. It was kind of a lot of COVID-delayed stuff. We did a big trip to Scotland with my husband’s family that had been originally planned in May of 2020. My sister got married. There was a lot of fun stuff, but it was a very busy, jam-packed summer. Summers in Minnesota are glorious. That’s why you live here, and we were gone for so much of it because of all of that. So this year, we really got intentional on we want to be home most of the time. Obviously, we have some travel. It is a good time to go see people and things like that, but on the whole, we’ve done a much better job of staying put in the summer, and that was an intentional decision that we made.

And so, along these lines, you could even plot out, again, full-day Friday through Sunday events in your calendar where you say, “Staying in town! No plans,” things like that, and you put them in for, I don’t know, let’s make it up and say every other weekend during the summer or every weekend during the summer except three or four weekends or whatever you want it to be, truly. But put those into your calendar because then when ideas come to you, you, again, will have those building blocks in there reminding you of what you originally wanted.

Can you be flexible with this? Obviously, yes, please. If you’re like, “Oh, but I didn’t anticipate this trip, and this is a –,” I was gonna say once-in-a-lifetime trip, but it doesn’t even have to be that. It’s something that means a lot to you. It’s someone you hadn’t seen in a while and the stars aligned and you could make it work. Whatever it is, go for it, but you’re making a more informed decision instead of kind of just always reacting to whenever their invites or ideas come to you and suddenly your summer’s packed and you’re just kind of like, “How did this happen?” and you’re kind of confused. This allows you to put a structure in place to help you get closer to the life that you wanted and visioned and having the breathing space and things like that, that you can always adapt and change, but it’s there for you to help future you get where you want to go.

So, again, you can just think about how many nights a week do we want to be home, how many hours each weekend do we want to be home, how many weekends a summer do we not want to be traveling, things like that, and then build those things into your calendar as default blocks of time. Call them whatever you want: unstructured time, negative space, wiggle room. Even things like, “Don’t fill this time up. I want breathing space,” or something like that. Anything that future you will read and be like, “Yep. Yep. Okay, sorry. I’ll leave it alone.” Anything that will help you get it to where you want it to be. Again, you can always move these times around as it works out for you, but it really will help you get where you want to go.

Negative Space Will Change – 14:18

What I also want you to be aware of is obviously this will change. It’ll change by life season you’re in. It will change by semester you’re in, if you have kids or you’re still in school or anything like that. It obviously will change. The negative space and where we want it to be and what we want it to look like will change. And so, one, just be open to that. If something is working really well for you but in six months you’re like, “Well, this doesn’t really fit in the way that it used to,” just re-evaluate it. You could even come back to this episode and listen to it again if you want.

Re-evaluation Reminders – 14:47

One thing you can also think about is let’s say that summer one is interesting to you, and you think, “Oh, yeah, I do want to be around more in the summer,” then what you could do is put in something like an annual reminder. Let’s say in March, whenever you start kind of thinking about summer a little bit, and just say, “Build in negative space for next summer,” or “Re-evaluate negative space for the next summer.” So whatever it looks like for you, but you could give yourself reminders to re-evaluate those negative space spacings, if you will, like the building blocks that you put in there, and a time that makes sense.

Similarly with kids, if you have kids and kids’ activities are one of those things, you could even think about it like towards the end of, let’s say, the fall semester, mid-November or something like that, or between Thanksgiving and Christmas if you celebrate those things, you could put in a reminder that’s like, “Re-evaluate negative space for the next semester.” You can give yourself these kind of repeating reminders to re-evaluate negative space, if you’d like to, in your calendar so that you kind of have this built-in maintenance and adjustment into your calendar that makes sense for you.

One thing you also could do (I always find this stuff interesting) is if you learn lessons that are helpful for you that you think will apply the next time you’re planning your summer or the next time you’re planning the fall semester, you could even say something like, “Think about negative space for the fall,” at whatever time you would. “SEE NOTES.” That’s what I like to do. In all caps I’ll be like, “SEE NOTES,” and then in the calendar description I’ll write out any lessons like, “This really worked well. This did not work well,” and things like that so that future me can use those lessons again and not have to learn them again the hard way where we’re two weeks into the fall semester and I’m like, “Oh, yeah. This is why I forgot I didn’t want to do that.” So you’re kind of helping future you kind of take in those lessons and run with them and not have to learn them again.

Recap – 16:49

In short, to wrap this up, what I really want you to hear is that really building out those blocks of negative space in a way that works for you, in a way that’s intentional, will help you protect time from yourself and get you closer to having your overall time-management piece of art be more what you want it to be in a way that I think just focusing on the subjects doesn’t fully get us there. So I just think this is an interesting concept, is really fun to play with, and I would love to hear what you think about it as well.

Also, if you love practical strategies like this and just find my time management approach clicking for you, I just encourage you to consider signing up for my next Bright Method Program. In it, you’ll learn my entire system. One-off strategies like the ones I talk about in these episodes are really fun and awesome, and I do definitely enjoy them, but having the full system that you can use to help you manage it all in your personal and professional life, that’s where the game-changing magic happens.

So enrollment for my next program opens next Tuesday, August 1st. It’ll open at 10:00 AM Central Time, which is 8:00 AM Pacific and 11:00 Eastern. Time Zones are really hard for me. There are limited spots, and I do anticipate it selling out, so just make sure that you get in there when it opens if you’d like to. You can go to www.kellynolan.com/bright if you want to learn more about it, jump on the waitlist, anything like that. And as always, if you have any questions, send me an email at ke***@ke********.com. I look forward to hearing from you, and I’ll talk to you soon!

[Upbeat Outro Music]

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