The Importance of White Space

When I was younger, I loved art. My art teacher taught me about composition and understanding how everything has its place, even the empty spaces.

When I grew older, I took photography lessons, where I learned about “headroom”. This is the space between the head of a person and the frame. It’s important for accurate cropping after taking the photo. More importantly, I learned of “lead room” which is giving a sense of space on both sides of an image (object or person).

Then, in an early job, I took on the role of graphic designer. This is where I learned the phrase “white space”. In graphic design, elements (text, photos, graphics) must be displayed on the page in such a way as to grab the eye and create a connection, while conveying information. I learned that too many elements felt confusing and cluttered; but too few elements could feel, well, perfect and inviting. This was the power of “white space” and is certainly the case where less is more.

Take an image, place it on a white background with empty space all around it, and the image takes on a powerful presence. Take the same image, place it on a colorful background with text boxes and a logo and three more smaller images – in essence, filling the white space – and now the image, is just one of many pieces of information.

This term, “White space”, popped into my head this week because my days have been a bit overwhelming. Reflecting on the previous weeks, I realized my mistake. I did not leave any white space in my day.

I supported my clients, and between sessions filled in coffee chats and webinars. I talked to people on the phone and responded to emails. If there was an empty time slot on my calendar, I filled it. When there wasn’t something scheduled, I filled that with trips to the grocery store, volunteering at my children’s school, cooking, and redrafting my “to do” lists. My day started at 530 am and ended at 930 pm, with a brief pause for a cup of tea before bed.

I never felt more productive, capable and focused. I never felt more drained, tired and done. I was missing my “white space” – my ME time.

White space also means “breathing room”. What a beautiful image; to sit, be still, and breathe. To leave space in your day, around yourself (that’s headroom) where you have room for oxygen to enter and light to fill the cracks. In all my scheduling, I failed to schedule breathing room. I filled in my white space.

Our bodies need breathing room. The constant “business” that we often wear as a badge of honor is not a positive thing. It supercharges our nervous system flooding it with the stress hormone, Cortisol, which prepares our bodies to react quickly to fend off or escape (also known as flight or fight). When this happens, blood flow is diverted from our digestive system (and other non-vital organs) to our heart. Blood pressure rises, our heart beats faster, more oxygen flows. This is meant to be temporary, but when we keep the same crazy schedule, we tend to stay in the heightened, stress state for too long. This then causes our immune system to be depressed (ever get sick right after meeting a big deadline?), our ability to cope with small stressors becomes limited, and we start to hold tension in our bodies. This tension is the “high alert mode” for the body – be ready for flight or fight at any moment. This same tension creates pain and imbalance.

Our brains need breathing room. Brains require glucose and oxygen to thrive. Cognition and focus actually increase during a stress state (you have to see where the danger is coming from), but for a limited time. Then the brain starts to fatigue (due to lack of nutrients since we often forget to eat well and stay hydrated while busy) and brain cells begin to die off. The prefrontal cortex (your thinking brain) starts to shrink! Your brain needs a break, which it gets while sleeping. But who has time to sleep? If time is granted, sleep is of poor quality and restless due to the added thoughts and “to dos” running around your mind.

Our hearts need breathing room. I didn’t schedule time with friends. There was little time with my husband and kids. I didn’t do my meditations (which made conditions even worse!) I didn’t read or do any crafting or art. I was doing great things, and helping many people and my heart felt good, but it also started to feel lonely. It started to feel anxious, depressed and worried. It finally whispered: “Amber stop. I need breathing room.” I’m glad I listened.

I scheduled a day off. I took my dog hiking. I sat in a grove of trees and just listened to the birds, the wind and my heart beating. I felt renewed!

I need white space. So, naturally, I am making room for it. I encourage you to do the same! I am scheduling white space into my calendar. Little pockets of breathing room and remembering what my teacher taught me “everything has its place, even the empty spaces.”

Learn ways to reduce stress and find breathing space in my book, available here. Also, sign up for my newsletter to be first to hear of new programs and events!

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