My workday ended with a mad dash to my car and a grueling rush-hour drive to my local community center. Loosening my necktie in the car, I prepared for my quick costume change. I knew that I would only have two minutes to transform myself from a suit-clad bureaucrat to a black-robed sensei if I wanted to start the class promptly at 7:00 p.m.
With soft music playing in the background, I lead a breathing meditation. Then I softly call, “Embrace a ball…..Now, grasp sparrow’s tail” as we begin the opening forms of my weekly tai chi class. In so doing, I began my weekly ritual in relaxation, mindfulness and balance. My ride home after class is the most relaxing, reflective and rejuvenating time of my week.
For over 10 years, this is how I claimed my own “white space” and found better balance, stress reduction and insight. It is one of several strategies that a leader can incorporate into a practice that yields energy, focus and creativity to your work.
In The Chaos Imperative, author Ori Brafman discusses how creating white space – taking a break from your routine and letting your mind wander – not only refreshes and rejuvenates but also leads to insight. He backs it up with neuroscience and the brain mapping that records how our brain remains active in white space, what researchers call our “default network.” With relaxation and a break from our routines, the brain is able “to synthesize and consolidate all we have been working on to help us discover the meaning and move forward.”
What does this mean for leadership?
In the face of the incessant buzzing, pinging and paging of the digital world, the calls, e-mails, action memos and high-stakes conversations, a leader needs to be able to create a sanctuary – a mental hideaway to reflect and refresh. Secretary of Defense, James Mattis identified this as the biggest problem for senior leadership in the information age, recently telling authors of the book, Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude:
Solitude allows you to reflect while others are reacting. We need solitude to refocus on prospective decision making rather than just reacting to problems as they arise. You have some external stimulus, then you go back to your experience, your education and you see what needs to be done.
I advise leaders to capture their own “white space” and self-consciously build into their schedules the time they need for reflection and rejuvenation. But the leader must first overcome their biggest nemesis – the daily schedule.
For those living in a meeting culture, the first thing to do is your own “meeting audit.” Look at each meeting you regularly attend and ask, “What is its purpose? Do I need to attend? What goal can I effectively advance? Is it something I can delegate?“
Then ask this question,”How long are these meetings and who decides how much time I spend in them?” Careful attention to these details can save you an hour meeting that only requires fifteen minutes. I know one leader who will book the hour meeting knowing it will take far less time, and when concluded, she then uses the newly created “white space” for other priorities. A meeting audit can help align your time with those truly essential tasks.
Many leaders appreciate the health benefits of exercise and enjoy how the mind clears with a run or brisk walk – or simply a change of scenery that gets you out from behind a desk (and preferably out of the building)! They make a point to exercise regularly to break up their routine and introduce some white space.
Other people may need to steal moments in the day that have become victims of “the tyranny of the urgent.” How many people do you see emerging from the subway pawing at their cellphones to check for email messages they may have missed during their temporary underground information blackout? What about using those Fitbit steps between the subway to your office to let your mind wander, do a simple breathing exercise or focus on a particular intention you want to bring to your day?
Meditation or other spiritual practices are solo activities that bring calm and relaxation. Many leader/practitioners combine these white-space experiences with appropriate music or silence as a way to enhance their physical, emotional and spiritual response. One colleague described her approach, telling me “I need to slow down to go fast.” She took time to interrupt the week’s rush of activity, trouble shooting on-the-fly decision-making by consciously striving to build in time for reflection. Taking a little “me time” allowed her to dig down when she needed to unpack complex problems, check her instincts, seek advice and refine her approach to a given challenge.
For me, tai chi remains a practice that I consistently lean on. I have used it with groups, offering a lunchtime class or inserting a few breathing exercises into a training or off-site retreat. It definitely works to change the atmosphere – with more than a few colleagues remarking on my fashion choices – and helps refresh and clear the mind. On a good day, it leads others to find a little white space of their own.
Neil A. Levine is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.