Juliet Funt is the founder and CEO of the efficiency firm JFG, which helps free the potential of companies by unburdening their talent from busywork. She has advised Spotify, National Geographic, Vans, and many Fortune 500 companies. Juliet has spent about twenty years watching the tolerated misery that so often exists in modern work, in which good people with earnest intentions burn themselves out, or lose touch with the satisfaction of professional effort. Her new book, and these big ideas, are for those who struggle to find a minute to think, or a breath of reflection, in their jam-packed schedules.
Below, Juliet shares 5 key insights from her new book, A Minute to Think: Reclaim Creativity, Conquer Busyness, and Do Your Best Work. Listen to the audio version—read by Juliet herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Feed the fire.
To make work feel less like dancing with a weed whacker and more like placing tiles in a mosaic, we must grasp the foundational metaphor of building a fire. To do so well, you need the right ingredients: newspaper, maybe some dried pine needles, a little fire starter, and two types of wood: softwood to catch quick and hardwood to burn long. But your beautiful blaze will never ignite if you forget one critical ingredient: space.
It’s the space between the combustibles that fire can’t live without. The space is what makes flames ignite and continue to burn. We forget this law of nature in every area of our lives—especially at work.
I believe that every person out there has a professional spark within them that’s made up of hope, talents, and the desire to contribute, but when they start work, they’re hit by an avalanche of emails, meetings, and urgency, until that lovely spark is extinguished. There’s no oxygen to feed the fire, and by 5 (or 6 or 7) o’clock, they look up and say, “What did I get done today?”
“We need to reinsert ‘white space’ into our days, or time with no assignment—moments when we can breathe, ponder, plan, and create.”
We need to reinsert “white space” into our days, or time with no assignment—moments when we can breathe, ponder, plan, and create. The name came from looking at the literal white spaces on a lightly scheduled paper calendar, and realizing that those open blocks are an indication of how much possibility that day could hold. To access it, you take a strategic pause. Stop what you are doing, and white space will rush in.
The simplest way to begin using white space is with the Wedge. The Wedge is a small portion of open time—a few seconds, a minute, or more—inserted between two activities in the timeline of our lives. The Wedge pries apart actions or events that, without it, would have been connected—between sitting down and diving in, between a question and your response, or between a meeting and another meeting. The Wedge stops us in any moment of life when taking the next action mindlessly would be a mistake. It brings refreshment or focus, and is a way to think before your next chess move.
As you begin to experiment with the Wedge and basic white space, your first inclination will be to think about it as a time to reboot our exhausted bodies and fatigued frontal lobe. But recuperation is only one out of many ways that successful people use white space. If you care about strategy, reflection, planning, or creativity, you’re going to need to feed that fire.
2. Catch a thief.
There are four key drivers that cause companies, teams, and human beings to become overloaded. We call them the Thieves of Time: drive, excellence, information, and activity. Despite being positive and helpful in their basic nature, these forces are also the biggest reason that white space disappears.
When taken to extremes, the Thieves of Time become corrupted. Drive becomes overdrive. Excellence becomes perfectionism. Information becomes information overload. Activity becomes downright frenzy. Our job is to notice which one or ones tend to carry us away, and then reclaim control of that process.
“Drive becomes overdrive. Excellence becomes perfectionism. Information becomes information overload. Activity becomes downright frenzy. Our job is to notice which one or ones tend to carry us away, and then reclaim control of that process.”
Let’s observe one of them in action. Steve Martin was a Chief Data Scientist at Microsoft, who was highly aware of the Thief information. One time, when asked to put together an elaborate package of 22 collateral items for the sales team, he was wary, but complied. He said to me, “I knew we were heading offtrack because there was no real focus on making sure the content itself was valuable.” He tested that hypothesis in one of the classic efficiency pranks of all time. In each of the 22 pieces of material, (not in a sneaky place like the footer or appendix, just in a place where anyone reading it would have found it) he embedded the following note: “If you’re reading this, email me and I’ll send you an Amazon gift card for $50.” And no one ever did.
When the same readiness team came back next year with an even longer list of requested materials, he was able to say, “You don’t need any of this. And here’s my proof.” Nothing could top the moment when the committee themselves realized that they (in their pre-release review) had also missed all the offers.
All of the Thieves work this way, tricking us into thinking that their endless demands are valid. This is the pattern we want to break by spotting and labeling them when they appear. When we feel them calling, we can take a Wedge, become objective, and move from an automatic response to an intentional one.
3. De-crapify your workflow.
Think for a minute about that satisfying feeling when you clean out a garage. You find treasure among the holiday decor and boxes, but one find is far more valuable than the rest—the space itself. When we stand before a freshly emptied room, we instantly feel thrilled about all its possibilities. Your workday can feel the same, but only if you are willing to be reductive. Here we are talking about “reductive” in the mathematical sense, constantly looking for what we can cut, jettison, shrink in scope, or let go of. I’ll suggest you go even further and adopt a reductive mindset, a way of seeing the world where ridding yourself of the unnecessary becomes second nature.
“Work is not a pie-eating contest; we must unburden our talented people.”
Work is not a pie-eating contest; we must unburden our talented people. And we can motivate ourselves by recognizing the significant price tag of wasteful touchpoints. In our client research we see that low-value work costs the typical company one million dollars for every 50 employees in misused talent time—or around one-third of their day. This is the productivity equivalent of letting 16 out of every 50 people lie around all day eating Doritos and playing video games.
What qualifies within your company for reductive review? Everything. Bravely and curiously, we must examine each category of action at work to create more capacity for execution. Much of this waste comes from the Thieves whispering in our ear, so we need a tool that will directly disarm them. That reductive tool is Simplification Questions. They are 25 words that I use just about every week, and each question maps back to one of the Thieves’ risks and becomes its remedy:
Drive: Is there anything I can let go of?
Excellence: Where is “good enough,” good enough?
Information: What do I truly need to know?
Activity: What deserves my attention?
Each person finds resonance with a different question—we’re drawn to the ones we need most. The questions can be used at the individual level or at the team and organizational level. They endlessly and nimbly allow us to amplify the best by removing the rest.
4. Use a Yellow List.
Being reductive can also be preventative. We need tools not only to strip away waste, but to prevent waste in the first place—especially for email, the Voldemort of busyness.
“We need tools not only to strip away waste, but to prevent waste in the first place—especially for email, the Voldemort of busyness.”
We’re drowning in digital communication, chats, Slack, Yammer. Chats are up 45% since the pandemic, and email has increased by 40 billion messages a month. But with the use of a Yellow List, especially as a team, you can reduce it all dramatically.
The Yellow List is a document where you “park” items that you need to discuss later. It’s used to collect all non-time sensitive questions, ideas, and issues for anyone you connect with frequently. You can keep one list per person, or a master list separated by first names. When you are about to send a typed communication, insert a tiny Wedge and ask yourself, “Could this just go on my Yellow List?” When your Yellow List lengthens, schedule a few minutes to share it with the appropriate person. You’ll see how talking these items through is fast, easy, and efficient.
Let me give you a glimpse into our company to explain how drastically email can be reduced with this tool. In our firm’s internal communications, we try to put everything on a Yellow List that can possibly go there. Most of the time we use email only for things that are email-dependent, like CCs, clickable links, attachments, lengthy information to share and digest slowly, or legal conversations where we need a record. If we’re traveling across crazy time zone differences, we use a bit more email, since calls become hard. If something is time-sensitive, we use texting and the phone. Everything else goes onto our Yellow Lists.
Sure, there’s a time and place for things to be in writing, not only for your ability to reference them later, but also for managers to occasionally have visibility on a chain of responsibility. Use the Wedge to pause and determine when your need to “put it in writing” is appropriate, and when it’s a gratuitous or fear-based habit.
5. Take space home with you.
We run around in the muck of “busy” all day long, and then we bring it home on our shoes. Or we work at home, and busy becomes the metronome of our entire life. We strive so hard trying to get wherever “there” is, but what will deliver true satisfaction is often not what we think. The number of self-described “very happy” people peaked in 1957, when an average house was nine hundred square feet. Now, U.S. credit card debt is a trillion dollars. We get so lost seeking what we think will give us joy that we can’t find our way back. Many times, it is pausing that allows true pleasure to step back onto the stage.
“With all the admirable things that you do, with how hard you work, I want to make sure you selfishly and fervently seek out and honor the pursuit of joy.”
The missing element of oxygen, when you bring it home, gives you time to record the tiny, visceral, magnificent details of living. That shower after a sweaty workout, the warmth of good whiskey, or a tight, lasting hug—your white space etches these blessings into your memory and helps you relish them. But being busy can make you miss it all.
What if our life outside of work had a little more of what Italians call “dolce far niente,” or “the sweetness of doing nothing”? Sitting in a coffee shop and letting your mind float, making up plotlines about strangers. Delicious idleness. From there, this “time with no assignment” outside of work allows us to consider activities that are “white space-adjacent”: reading fiction, listening to music, recreational cooking, or building a model train. To lose ourselves in a real hobby is a kingly luxury. With all the admirable things that you do, with how hard you work, I want to make sure you selfishly and fervently seek out and honor the pursuit of joy, because that’s the endgame of taking on all the rest.
And make space in the lives of your over-scheduled kids! I had a client who told her six-year-old that they were canceling all the day’s after-school activities so she could “spend time in the backyard.” Her daughter looked at her and said, “And do what?” Kids don’t know how to enjoy space, and we have to teach them. Most kids should be bored a lot more often—aimlessly, eye-rollingly bored until they reach deep inside themselves to discover their interests.
Once we see the world through a white-space lens, that dramatic adjustment in our vision follows us wherever we go. It allows you to ask, “How will I spend the precious moments of this one and only day in my one and only life?”
To listen to the audio version read by Juliet Funt, download the Next Big Idea App today: