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.


Comments 21

  1. Hi Kelly,
    Thanks for the post. I love routine but I also love being able to loosen up the routine a little too – for example, I have some things that I would like to get done each morning but if they don’t happen or if they come about in a mixed up order, then I am ok with that. I used to be fixated on the routine and its timing but that’s a stressful way to start a day.
    I don’t schedule each minute of the day but I still love the idea of being deliberately inefficient and would like to hear more of how you and your readers do this (without feeling a teeny bit of guilt!)

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      Hey Cherie – I used to be the same (fixated on the routine – and if anything threw the routine out, hell to pay!) But funnily enough, once I brought whitespace into my life via deliberate inefficiency, everything got a lot better. I so look forward to sharing more on the topic in coming weeks!

  2. I recognise that without these moments filtering my daily busy I would never, ever stop and then I’d be even more exhausted and over myself than I already am. I always say to myself, “be glad of the moment you’re in”. No point fighting the unwinnable – life is going to move at it’s own pace whether we fight it or we don’t. If I’m stuck in traffic, I turn on a podcast and that’s where I’m meant to be. If the queue is long, I keep a book in my handbag and I’m grateful I get to read it. If the kids’ ex-curricular activities run over, I put my feet up and have a little snooze. Nothing quite like a car snooze.

    I draw the line at slow walkers, though. If I’m stuck behind a slow walker, my space is black, baby, BLACK.

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    2. LOL. I agree on the slow walkers bit. I don’t actually mind slow drivers (as long as I can get around them) but it’s always GROUPS of slow walkers, taking up the entire sidewalk, who turn me into a nasty, cussing bitch! NO WHITESPACE FOR YOU! (because they’ve left none for me, you see?) Huh. Funny how that works.

  3. Kelly I love this post. I used to try and schedule every second of my days to be as productive as possible. Then as you state life happens and I felt like I had failed, even though I had achieved lots. And yes I would be cross at those that who impeded upon my schedule. But after trying to become more mindful I am better at scheduling less and sitting with my free time more. It is so easy to keep going, we will never achieve all we need. So I am just trying to be happy with what I can achieve and take little snippets of time when it is forced upon me. Just waited happily at Drs for 30 mins, in the past I would have hated it. Xx

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      Yes! I think that’s the biggest biggest problem with the tight scheduling – no matter how much we would get done in a day, if the day got even slightly derailed, we’d feel like we’d accomplished nothing. Which was never accurate! And I love that you just enjoyed your 30 minutes in the waiting room!

  4. I love a good routine, but I do have to be careful not to become a slave to my routine and remember that life happens. It’s ok when things don’t go to plan. Having said all that, I have been noticing a lurking inner rebel who, when the routine is flowing nicely requiring little thinking from me, it jumps and says “this is boring, you are such a boring old routine person, stuck in a rut. You know the only difference between a rut and a grave is the depth….don’t do it..go on do something different today.”
    Never a dull moment in my head

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  5. I would like to learn how to incorporate whitespace into my daily routine without feeling guilty about it (from my own expectations and others’). I feel hounded by all of my responsibilities, you know the saying, “tyranny of the urgent”? I also realize that it is a false humility to think that the world cannot spin on, or my family will collapse, or the house explode, unless I am constantly go-go-going, but I still feel so…obligated. So, my whitespace ends up cutting into sleep (like now, for instance), because I would go crazy if I didn’t have down time. What’s the point of being human without down time?

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      Sarah I think I am going to try and tackle this next week – it seems to be a common theme coming through the emails I am getting on this topic. And I certainly know I’ve battled the guilt myself!

  6. I used to schedule my day down to 15 minutes blocks. At the end of the day I was exhausted, anxious and incredibly stressed, now I block out time to do nothing but breathe or file (filing makes me happy). I love my white space now and couldn’t imagine going back to the hectic days of trying to do it all, I let go of the need to be perfect

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      Filing! That’s so funny. I declutter to relax!

      I think the blocking out of time/scheduling of whitespace time is really the only way we’re ever going to get it without feeling guilty

  7. Hey Kelly,
    I absolutely loved this chapter of your book! I thrive on routine, scheduling, deadlines, task… but I was finding myself going ‘”hell for leather” for weeks at a time, then absolutely crashing! but then it would take me over a week to have a little ‘ chill out’ , clear my head and get back into it again…. I couldn’t understand why… When I read this in your book the lightbulb went off “ping – that was it!” I don’t have white space in my day, or, I never thought I COULD give myself permission to have white space…
    So, since Monday, I’ve changed my routine, doing my Priority 1 & emails quickly before the kids get up, then allowing myself to have whitespace. It has made such a change to my day 🙂
    Thank you for another amazing book and giving me a kick up the bum to start creating whitespace in my days 🙂
    Love Lee xx

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      Yay – I love your new routine! And I just know what a difference it makes to a day and a life. So good!

  8. Because my chosen industry is full of “hurry up and wait”, it is impossible for me to schedule anything. It’s also impossible for me to NOT have whitespace. Most people would hate that aspect of showbiz, even if they have dreams of working in the entertainment industry. I love it. I’m chill. My life would be very different if I had kids or a “normal” career, but I think the differences wouldn’t suit me. I’m very grateful for the life I get to live.

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  9. Great topic Kelly. I’m slowly trying to build routine into my day and as that gets better, I look forward to whitespace. I use to hate taking the bus because I was always late in leaving the house. As I get better at leaving on time, I will enjoy the bus whitespace to read a good book and just enjoy the ride.

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  10. I love the idea of “deliberate inefficiency.” I’m a routine lover but I have the concentration span of a gnat which means I naturally have lots of spots of white space in my day. I think the trick though, is trying not to feel guilty about it and not keep thinking that I could be doing something more useful or productive instead!

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