Why white space is actually NOT helping you get more breathing space

August 21, 2023

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We’ve traditionally strived for white space in our calendar because we think it will get us more breathing space. 

But that’s not an effective strategy – it’s not getting you the breathing space you crave. Let’s talk about what to do instead.

Related episodes to check out:

  • Episode 1
  • Episode 9 (I discuss getting more ease in your life by protecting breathing space in your schedule)
  • Episode 13 (Negative space)

To learn more about and sign up for the Bright Method 8-week program, click here: https://kellynolan.com/the-bright-method-time-management-course-with-kelly-nolan.

Full Transcript

[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! I am so excited to dig into this one, and I know I say that frequently, and I do just nerdily really love this stuff. Today’s episode is just really interesting to me. So I don’t know, I’m just really excited about it!

So I think what’s fascinating is that we all always say we want more white space, and I get what we mean, and it’s finally clicked for me why it’s always struck me as a little bit awkward when I talk about white space. And so, I really want to dig into that today and why I think that white space is actually the wrong thing that we should be striving for and what we should be after instead.

So I think at first it’s helpful to clarify what we really want, and I think we all are on the same page here. What we really want is unstructured time or time to do specific things that bring us joy or whatever it is in our lives that we would like to do more of, we want that. So, obviously, I think what comes to mind is the personal stuff, but even in the workspace, it’s like we just want more breathing space. We want space between meetings. We want space to actually get some work done. We want some wiggle room. We want, obviously on the personal side, time at home to do nothing or be with loved ones or whatever it is, but we just want breathing space, wiggle room, whatever you think of it as, but it’s that which we’re after, not just white space in our calendar. We want the breathing space that represents to us, in a sense. But what we’re ultimately after is that breathing space. I think this is an important distinction, not just semantics and all of that. I think it’s an important distinction for two main reasons.

White Space is a Commodity That we Freely Give Away – 2:10

The first one is that we tend to treat white space as this commodity that we want, like white space in our calendar is this commodity that we want, but it also is what we give away or that others take from us pretty freely. And then we ultimately just get whatever white space is left over after all of that has happened, and it’s just not a great approach for something that we say we desperately want that we give it away so freely.

What clicked for me today is that white space to us equals free time, but also white space literally is what’s in our calendar as available time to give away to others or for projects that we take on. So, essentially, our free time in our calendar (using white space as that free time) literally is indistinguishable from time we think is available to give to others. Free time means time we give away to others, and you only really get the free time, in that present moment when you get to that time, you only get it if no one else has taken it or you haven’t given it away. That is not good if you actually want free time in your life. We just don’t want to have leftover dregs of whatever’s left at the end of the day. We want to actually have free time in our lives, and so, we’ve got to figure out a different way (not just white space) to protect that time for ourselves. If we say we want breathing space, we need to figure out a different way to get it than we would have been if white space was our mechanism to get it because it hasn’t really been working for us.

And so, why I think this clicked for me, even though it practically doesn’t change much for me because this is what I’ve been doing with The Bright Method is protecting, with time-blocked time, time for the breathing space, time for the freedom, even if it’s unstructured time where you don’t have anything. I have been, for years now, protecting time in my calendar and teaching that to clients on what we do. “If you want free time, let’s block it for you in your calendar so it’s more intentional.”

What’s important to see there is when you block it to protect it, to get clear about when you want it and things like that, it’s no longer white space. Unlike white space, we see it visually, we remind future us what we want for that time so that we don’t just give it away. We protect it, and it just helps us protect and prioritize having the breathing space in our life in a way that white space that looks indistinguishable from other time you give it away to other people, just can’t do.

Just to be really clear, I know I mentioned this before, if you don’t want to get really specific, I totally get it. If you’re like, “I don’t want to lay out exactly what book I want to read or what movie I want to watch,” or things like that, just block unstructured time, free time, “I don’t want to give it away,” anything like that that’ll help you, down the road, understand what you meant and what your aim is and not give it away to happy hour with those colleagues that you don’t actually fully enjoy, or saying yes to another project, or things like that or another call at that time when you really wanted that for your breathing space. It helps you make a better-informed decision down the road because you are visually reminding that future-you version who’s gonna be looking at the time of what you wanted to do with it instead of hoping she remembers that white space that’s indistinguishable from every other white space is actually time you wanted to do something for yourself. That approach is how you’re actually gonna get breathing space, not white space.

So that’s the first point that I think is really critical of why I think that when we talk about, “I just want more white space, I want more white space in our calendar,” it’s actually not serving us very efficiently but also effectively in getting us the breathing space that we want.

White Space in Our Calendar Confuses Us – 6:10

The second point that’s critical to make when we’re talking about this stuff is that pure white space and empty space in our calendar really confuses us. It really tricks us into thinking we have a lot more time than we have and sends our brains into kind of this hyper-vigilant overdrive because our brains know that it’s not total free time, and so, our brains start spinning and seeking out, “Where are all those tasks that we need to do. Where are they? Do I need to do them right now? Should I be using this white space time to do all of those things?” Backing up, just to be clear, I mean this if you’re not using your calendar in the way that I teach.

So let’s say you’re using it in the way that I think most of us traditionally have used calendars. You only put your meetings in there, maybe some things you do for other people, scheduled phone calls, that kind of stuff, but you’re not using it to keep track of everything you need to do in the way that I teach, and I know that can be somewhat overwhelming. I teach tech strategies. I walk you through it step by step. I don’t mean to sugarcoat how easy it is, but for purposes of today, I just want to clarify what I mean. If your calendar really just contains your meetings, maybe when you have to drop and pick up kids and things like that, but for the most part it’s things you do for or with other people, then you likely, unless you work in a corporate, very meeting-heavy scenario. And even still the same problem exists, you likely have white space that is not actually free time, and you know that. You look at your calendar and you know it’s not free time, but there’s a lot of white space.

The problem is that it gives you that illusion of free time. It’s like, “I have all this available time,” which leads you to overcommit because when you get that phone call from that boss, and they’re like, “Do you have time to take this project on?” all you quickly see in your panic-induced, distracted mind is a calendar with a lot of white space, and so, you say yes. When in reality, in that scenario, you have a mountain of tasks that you need to do that live in to-do lists, in your email, in your head, task-management app, wherever they live. You have a mountain of things to do somewhere else, you just haven’t tied them into your calendar. You haven’t tied them to time, so you don’t really have an understanding of how much work you have on your plate, and that is very fair because no one has taught us this, so there’s truly, truly no judgment. I have been there, but I also know the overwhelmed feeling that comes from that because you have that feeling of, “I’m pretty sure I’m drowning, but I don’t know because I can’t see it. I don’t know if it’s objectively reasonable for me to feel this way, so I’m just gonna keep saying yes.” That leads to, obviously, a lot of overcommitment. So a lot of this white space in our calendar gives us that illusion of free time, and so, we overcommit because we see white space, so we keep saying yes to new projects.

The other kind of subcategory here about why white, empty space in our calendar confuses us is because it just is confusing because our brain sees free time, but our brain also knows it’s not free time, and so, our brain just kind of goes out searching. It sees white space, and it goes out searching for all the other things we should be doing. Racking your brain for things you need to be doing, looking at to-do lists, looking at email, just kind of hunting and pecking for all the things you need to do and never being totally confident that you have them all. And so, it just keeps looking and spinning, and that’s a lot of the why I kind of think of it as if you get some time between meetings or you even try to sit down at the end of the day and are trying to relax, and you can’t, and you kind of go into that hunting, pecking thing I was just describing, it’s because of this. It’s because you see white space, and your brain knows it’s not free time. And so, it just goes out in search of other things I think in part because when you don’t know all of the things on your plate because no one showed us how to do this and you haven’t laid it out over time, you don’t know if you can get it done, and so, you definitely don’t know if you can take that break and still get it done. So you feel like, “The only shot that I’m gonna get it done is if I just keep working,” and that confusion and stress and uncertainty is terrible to feel.

And so, I think that’s the second component of why white space actually really confuses us, because it looks free, we give it away as if it’s free, but we really know it’s not free, but we’re stressed out because we’re not really sure how much of it is taken up by our current workload. I address that a bit in episode one of this podcast, so if you haven’t listened to that yet or if you just want to revisit it again, feel free. Just know I kind of dig into that a little bit more. But that’s a critical component here as well.

So just to kind of recap where we are right now, we talk a lot about wanting white space. In reality, what we want is more breathing space, and the problem is when we focus on wanting white space in our calendar, we first equate white space to breathing space, but we also equate white space to time we give away to other people, so we give it away. Then we just end up with the dregs of what’s left, and obviously that’s problematic. What we want to do instead is protect the breathing space we want in our calendar with visual time blocks so that we protect and get that breathing space, and that’s actually taking away from the white space. So it goes to show that white space actually isn’t providing the breathing space we want, and instead we need to do something else to get it.

The second part in advocating for not striving for white space but instead focusing on breathing space and using different strategies to get it is that white space is super confusing to our brain. It looks like free time, which leads us to overcommit, and it also is very stressful because our brain knows it’s not free time and then goes into overdrive looking for all the things we should be doing during that time to fill the white space to give us a shot of getting all the things we need to get done, done.

So, simply put, ironically, white space is actually pretty bad from a time-management perspective. At least it’s bad if you’re using a system to manage your time that basically leads to white space being kind of confusing, sending your brain into that tailspin and just causing you to overcommit. If you look at the results of white space in that scenario, then it’s not an effective time-management strategy, and I’m not even sure you would call it a strategy, but it’s not what we should be striving for as the means of getting the breathing space that we want.

Instead of seeking white space and glorifying white space in our calendar, what we need to be doing is really focusing on what we want as breathing space and then using strategies to help you get there, which as I’ve talked about, includes the removal of white space, ironically, and really what I would love for you to do is block the time that you want for that breathing space in your calendar to up the chances that you’re gonna get it.

Calendaring Unstructured Time – 13:34

We’ve touched on this in past episodes, including as I said episode one, but also even when I talked about negative space and some other things (I’ll link them in the show notes), when I talk about protecting unstructured time, blocking time for unstructured time, being really clear on how much unstructured time you want on the weekends or want in the evenings, that’s what I mean. Actually blocking, putting a block in your calendar of unstructured time or free time or do-whatever-I-want time or whatever you want to call it, but blocking it in your calendar so that it’s not just white space anymore, but it’s protected time to do it.

One last thing I want to address in this scenario, because I know that it comes up, is that this can feel weird for some people. It might not strike you as weird and that’s awesome. So keep doing it if you’re doing it. But there are some people who resist this. They’re like, “Calendaring fun or even calendaring free time in my calendar just sucks the joy out of it,” essentially. And that’s understandable because I think a lot of us have been trained to use calendars as just a means by which you do things for or with other people, and often it’s things that we don’t really want to be doing. And so, scheduling time for fun or freedom, especially if it doesn’t involve other people, just feels weird. It just does, and I understand that, initially.

I would love for you to start trying to wrap your brain around moving away from your calendar being something that only you use to or for other people and instead use it as a tool that is designed to manage time. So use it as a tool that will help you design and live out your life, just made up of time, in a way that you’re really excited about, that helps you accomplish the things that you want to accomplish, and where it all comes together in a way that you like. It’s truly a tool that is designed to help you design and then get to live out the life you want, and that’s really what I would love for you to focus on.

What I don’t want you to do is just think, “Ugh, this feels weird, so I’m not gonna do it,” because the alternative isn’t getting you where you want it to get you. And so, I think it’s really important to say, “This feels weird, but I think I need to kind of try it out and understand and try and see the potential of how a calendar could serve me in a different way than it has in the past. It’s just a tool, and maybe I was using it to be successful in this part of my life and let me see if I can use it to be successful in all of this other part of my life as well.”

In addition, as always, I really believe in the flexibility of this stuff, so just because you calendar your unstructured time, if some cool invite comes up for that same period of time, feel free to accept it and then just move it around. Just remember that you can be flexible and spontaneous with this system. The whole point is that we’re just making visual what you’re trying to accomplish, but up until now, we’ve often been holding just in our heads, and instead get it out so you can see it, play with it, not have to memorize it, and make more intentional decisions in light of all of it.

So, in short, understand what you’re really after. What you’re really after is not white space in whatever calendar you use. What you’re after is breathing space, and white space in your calendar hasn’t really been getting you that breathing space, especially as life gets more complicated and all of that. So instead, look for strategies that get you that breathing space outside of white space.

Fall Bright Method Program – 17:14

All right, if you enjoy this stuff as much as I do (or maybe half as much because I do enjoy it a lot), just know that enrollment for my next Bright Method program is now open! I run this program twice a year – once in the fall kind of at the start of the academic year and once in the new year kind of, obviously, at the start of the new calendar year. This particular one is running from late September (hopefully once all the back-to-school craziness gets over for those who join who are parents) though November 16th. So we’ll wrap things up right in time for the holidays, so you can go into the holidays with a lot more peace of mind and clarity and less stress, which I just love, and I can’t wait for that for you.

It’s for professional working women who want a system to help them manage it all personally and professionally. I really believe that time is time is time is time. We have to understand how it all comes together and interacts.

What we do is I walk you through the main four pillars. We start with lightening your mental load on the home front, then we turn to getting intentional with your work hours, then we break projects down into a realistic game plan using a six-step process, and finally we wrap it up with planning in a way that brings a whole lot more clarity to your life. We cover tangentially-related topics like drawing boundaries and delegating and things like that. Underlying all of this are practical strategies. I hope that by now you understand that I love practical strategies. I love the theory behind it, but I want to know how to bring it to life, and that is what is critical for me that you also understand. I want you walking away with a system that is up and running for you.

How it works is you sign up, you get some immediate welcome videos, you fill out a form, so I get to know you, things like that, and then once we kick things off, each week you get video lessons that walk you through learning and setting up the full Bright Method whenever it works best for you. That’s what I love about it. Everybody’s busy. Everyone has different schedules. You get the main curriculum and video format and guides and worksheets as well, and you can work through that whenever it works best for you.

Then, once a week, we meet as a full group to discuss challenges and wins. The amazing part is that the whole Bright Method is so flexible. It molds to you. It adapts to you. It changes with you with life phases, and so, speaking to and with other women is so helpful because you get to learn so much from hearing how other people have adapted it. Now, all of the calls are recorded and made available to you. So if you can’t make a call or any of the calls, just know that you do have that resource available to you as well.

Then, in addition, we have three weeks of industry breakout calls. So we have legal, medical, corporate, and business owners. While I love the full group calls because we all get to learn from each other, and I love the cross of, “We do this in corporate.” “Oh,” and then legal picks that up and runs with it and things like that. It’s also really nice to break out into the groups because pain points are different in corporate than they are in the legal world than they are in the medical world than they are in the business-owner world. And so, that opportunity is really fun to get to talk about how to use the system with people who really resonate with your time-management challenges.

In addition, between the calls, and if you just want to ask a question more privately, you are more than welcome to email me. I absolutely love emailing back and forth with the women. I teach you how to use a software called Loom, and, basically, you can record your screen and talk over it and things like that. And then I typically do the same back to you. It’s basically like we’re having a conversation back and forth, but it’s asynchronous. So again, it works really well for if you’re going through the videos at 9:00 PM at night, you can send off a video asking me your question, and then I will send one back to you.

When it all comes together, you get a whole lot more clarity about how you’re gonna manage your professional and your personal lives. It’s a lot less stress, a lot more fun, a lot more clarity, and I really, really love watching people get these results and hearing about it.

In the words of one client, she said:

“Now that I’ve gone through Kelly’s program, I have reclaimed my brain space and have everything in one easy-to-access place. I cannot even express how much more clear my priorities are for my life and my family now as compared to before.”

I would love to get you similar results! Join me! You can go to www.kellynolan.com/bright. I’ll also put the link in the show notes, and if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to me. As I said, I love talking about this stuff. I’m an open book. I will help you understand if it’s the right program for you, if it’s the right timing for you, and any other questions you have.

All right! Thanks for being here, and I’ll see you in the next episode!

[Upbeat Outro Music]

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