White space is a concept many people are familiar with. In art, it’s often called “negative space.” White space is not just “blank space,” however — it is used deliberately. It is a fundamental element of design that allows the objects to exist. It’s the space that as one artist described it, provides “visual breathing room for the eye.”

I have a daughter who is an amazing artist and sometimes she creates her work by taking a blank piece of white paper and then fills in everything but the white space. It’s a fascinating process to watch.

White space applies to the written word as well — it’s hard to read a solid wall of text. Orasentencewithnospacingbetweenletters. (Although in today’s world of hashtags, we’ve gotten better at reading lots of words smooshed together…) If you’ve ever seen a political flyer by a newbie candidate trying to fit all of their arguments onto one page, you’ll know exactly what I mean. Less is more. 

I’ve adapted an artist’s definition of white space to describe why we desperately need it in our personal and professional lives. “Whitespace creates harmony and balance in our lives. Whitespace should not be considered merely ‘blank’ space - it’s the element that enables the rest of our busy lives to exist. It is the space that balances things out and reminds us that life is beautiful. We don’t need to create a life overcrowded with to-do lists and unrelenting time demands to live a full and meaningful life. It’s the space that provides breathing room for the soul.”

On both the personal level and professional level, white space allows us room for the unexpected, for creativity to flourish, for answers to questions we’ve been gnawing on to come into our minds and for what Stephen Covey called “sharpening the saw.”

Making time for white space in your life is what keeps water in the well. Being stretched too thin, over scheduled and over burdened, with no room to breathe eventually catches up with you. Relationships suffer, mental health suffers, your body’s immunity to disease suffers, your resilience suffers and your productivity suffers. It’s a tired Bilbo Baggins saying “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

Lack of white space affects the corporate environment as well. Employees with no room for white space in their jobs become less productive, less creative, less satisfied with their jobs and less likely to stay with that company. People need space — white space — to be their best selves, both on and off the job.

White space does not mean we need to become hermits, of course. There is a balance and it is possible to go too far in either direction. We can see the pendulum in the open office layouts that are so popular today, from all offices to all open space, sometimes even as loose as “hotdesking,” where employees take their supplies with them and sit wherever space is available.

The concept of open offices came about in the 1990’s after some research showed that collaboration brought about the best ideas. Some thought the best way to achieve that was to literally break down walls and the trend caught on. What we know now is that productivity suffers, that focus is hard to achieve in a noisy environment and that once we get off-task, even from small distractions, it can take upwards of 20 minutes to return to our previous level of focus.

More and more, companies are trying to find ways to bring back some privacy, while continuing to have a creative, collaborative culture. Some are doing it through providing private office space, some through providing ”quiet spaces” for employees to head off to get focused work done and other configurations as well.

Whether or not your work environment provides quiet space, creating your own white space at work and at home is essential. White space is also time to be technology free — it is not time to check out Facebook or Pinterest, catch up on your email or see how your team is doing. Take a look at your calendar. Is it so full your appointments are bleeding into each other? Have you scheduled time to plan? To review? Just to think?

Like in art, white space in your life does not not “just happen.” You have to fight for it. It’s a battle worth winning.

Holly Richardson enjoys speaking and writing about “white space,” self-care, productivity and leadership.