Whitespace – what it is, why you need it, where to find it


It was one of those days at the bank. The line was long and slow-moving—every person in front of me seemed to have a long and complicated transaction. By the time a teller became available for my own long and complicated transaction I’d already been waiting in line for 20 minutes.

The teller smiled at me apologetically and got to work. Another 20 minutes later it was finally done.

As she stacked and stapled my paperwork and handed it to me she offered a profuse apology. “Thanks so much for your patience,” she said. “I know you don’t have time for this.”

I smiled back at her. “It’s all good.”

And as I walked away I experienced a revelation. I did have time for this.

There was a time in my life (like, six months earlier) when I would have stood in line blatantly checking my watch, tapping my feet and sighing. I would have dreamt of sending the bank an invoice for Wasting My Time because time is money, right?

But not that day. That day I had time to ‘waste’ standing around in the bank for 40 minutes.

And it felt great.

It felt great not to be angry and fuming. It felt great being able to reassure the harried teller it was all okay. It felt great to get in my car without having to rush to my next destination feeling harassed and dangerously distracted.

That was the point in time when I realised my experiments with creating more whitespace in my life had paid off.

What is whitespace?

It’s actually a graphic design element. One that:

  • Lets the other elements on the page breathe.
  • Reduces tension between elements.
  • Lets the most important things come to the fore.
  • Is essential for balance and harmony in a design.

It’s literally the space (large or small) between every element on the page be it the space between two letters, the space between an image and the edge of a page, or the space between two lines of text.

When you look at a website or a poster (for example) and feel a bit angsty, you’d have no idea why you feel that way, but the most likely reason is because the designer has not incorporated enough whitespace.

Why we all need more whitespace in our lives

In the same way whitespace makes a design more coherent and balanced, so too does it make a life more coherent and balanced. As you can see from my experience at the bank, the whitespace I’d created in my life gave me room to breathe. It allowed for the unexpected. And in doing so, it made me less angry and more compassionate – both to the people around me (the bank teller) and myself.

Where to find whitespace

Well, the first thing you need to stop doing is scheduling your days down to the minute. I’ve been there done that and I know what a recipe for disaster that is. Have you ever had a single day where there wasn’t a single contingency?

  • A narky email from your boss that took 30 minutes to respond to.
  • A cry for help from a friend.
  • Your toddler doing a poo in their nappy just as you’d strapped them into the car.
  • Your child informing you about school dress up day 10 minutes before you’re meant to walk out the door.

These kinds of things happen every single day – and when our days are scheduled down to the minute, these things make us angry and frustrated because we’ve done the right thing by organising our days to get everything that needs to be done, done. And now other people are screwing with that.

The thing is – these other people aren’t setting out to ruin our lives. These are just things that happen. So we can either spend our days angry and frustrated, or we can create room to deal with these things when they happen.

How do we do this?

Well first, we need to make a small but significant shift:

Instead of using productivity to fit more stuff into our days, we need to use productivity to create pockets of space in our days where we have permission to be unproductive.

I call this deliberate inefficiency.

What’s something that allows me to work deliberate inefficiency into my days? Routines.

Many people push back at the idea of routines, seeing them as creatively stifling or rigid. I love them because:

  1. They reduce how much I have to think about a given task or set of tasks.
  2. They reduce the time it takes me to do something because they make me more efficient.

How do they create space in my life?

Well, when I do something more efficiently, it takes less time. And where I would have previously utilised the time freed up by that efficiency to do something else, these days I use that time freed up to do … nothing.

Or, whatever I feel like.

‘Whatever I feel like’ might be to complete my tasks more slowly. It might be ‘wasting time’ messing around on Facebook or Instagram. It might be going and sitting on the back deck for five minutes. Sometimes that time is spent dealing with an unexpected contingency. One I’m able to deal with without anger or frustration because I now have the space and time to do so.

Sounds nice right?

Well I’m going to talk more about how routines make life better by creating whitespace in coming weeks but for now, I’d love to hear:

  • Are you a routine lover or hater?
  • Are you a highly productive person who currently schedules their days down to the minute? Are you intrigued by this idea of deliberate inefficiency?


If you enjoyed this article then you would probably enjoy my latest book Practical Perfection. In addition to talking about whitespace, it also tackles the topics of burnout and overwhelm … and what we can do to avoid these things. Get Practical Perfection in pdf, Kindle and Paperback formats here.