When it comes to creative ideas, the brain needs to stop in order to spark.
Words and illustrations Naomi Bulger
What is white space?
Here is a list of places where I always seem to get my best ideas and inspiration: washing up after dinner, walking to pick the kids up from school, in the shower, during a solitary drive, while digging in the garden, elbows-deep in a repetitive painting project, daydreaming beside a window, cup of tea in hand, in bed, seconds before I’m about to fall asleep.
One thing that almost all of these places have in common is the extraordinary inconvenience involved when it comes to writing down said ideas and inspiration. Showers and writing paper are not a match made in heaven; my husband gets inexplicably annoyed when I sit up in bed at 2am, turn on the light, and start writing; and I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to make notes while driving a car. Or it should be.
The other thing they all share is that, for me, they have become pockets of ‘mental white space’ in my busy days. Increasingly rare moments when I am either doing a repetitive task, or doing nothing much at all, and my mind is given the freedom to pause, or wander, without interruption or agenda.
In the art world, ‘white space’ is a term used to describe the empty areas of the canvas, the space around the subject of the picture. But it is definitely not nothing, and most artists will insist that white space is essential to good composition. White space creates balance, reduces clutter and allows the other elements in a painting to sing.
Mental white space is, put simply, the absence of input. You’re not consuming information and if your body is moving, it is doing the kinds of tasks you can do on autopilot, freeing your mind to gently… drift… away.
And – I wonder if you have experienced this too? – sometimes during my own periods of mental white space, quite unexpectedly, ideas can begin to flood in. New ideas, crazy ideas, creative ideas and often my best ideas. I like to think those ideas were there all along, somewhere in my head, but that noise and input from my busy day was blocking them from reaching me. My creative ideas are the freshly squeezed orange juice that can’t flow through the sieve and into the glass until I stop and scrape away all that pulp.
Last year I started researching the concept of ‘mental white space’ and its connection to creativity. I learned we can strategically tap into this creative outpouring of ideas if we deliberately build white space into our days.
Why we need white space
But first, let’s explore why I think most of us could benefit from factoring a little more white space into our lives.
Never in human history have our brains had to process so much information, or received it in such a constant, never-ending flow. Literally from the moment we open our eyes in the morning, information input begins. Most of us reach for our smartphones and, from that first second, we are assaulted by information: emails, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, messaging, podcasts, newsfeeds, weather reports, calendar reminders, playlists, phone apps, games, blogs, Google, television. And it’s not just the electronics that we are consuming. What about books? Magazines? Conversations, lectures, traffic signals, radio programmes, café menus, advertising posters, text books, meetings, shopping lists, reports…
In fact, a 2012 study by scientists at the University of California San Diego found the average American consumed around 34 gigabytes of data and information every day, an increase of 350 per cent in just three decades. I’ve heard this information onslaught likened to a fire hose of data aimed at our brains.
This is not to say that any of the content we are consuming is inherently bad. Content is how we learn, grow and connect with one another. The problem for us, especially in the digital age, is that as it has become easier to consume content in multiple different formats, that content has flowed into our lives to such an extent that it is almost never turned off.
Where does all that data leave your creativity? Not long ago I heard someone say, “While you are consuming, you are not creating.” Try penning a haiku while also watching The Bachelor and you’ll see what that means. But with 34 gigabytes of information blasting its way into our brains every day, how do we make room for creative ideas?
The answer might be as simple as “white space”. Gone are the days of toiling from dawn until dusk in the fields, enjoying a good meal at night, then easing our tired muscles onto a chair and relaxing in contemplation beside the fire until bedtime. In 2019, we have to deliberately, mindfully and repeatedly carve out time for white space, if we want it.
Three ‘mind time zones’
The concept of ‘mind time zones’ comes from Jeffrey Davis, author of Tracking Wonder, and it is pretty simple: you set aside specific times in the day at which you intentionally and regularly shape your brain for creative activity (although only one involves actual creative activity).
- About 10 or 15 minutes before you go to sleep, turn off all screens and do something gentle and not related to work. Read a few pages of a novel. Chat with your partner. Crochet a square. Then, just before you drift off to sleep, centre your mind on one creative challenge or project that you want your mind to work on. Night night!
- Try to time your morning (set an alarm if necessary) so you can spend 10 minutes alone, screen free, just setting your mind for the day’s activities and thinking about your creative challenge or project. Maybe write some morning pages. Take the dog for a short walk. Do some yoga stretches. Sip a cup of tea.
- When you sit down to do your creative work (whatever that means to you: it could be solving a tricky problem, innovating at work, fixing that wonky bit in your painting), state your intentions. Say, “I am going to work on this or that specific challenge,” then use a set time to do your creative work or brainstorm your creative ideas during that period.
When the time period is up, be willing to let it go and move on to something else. If you have been practising all three mind time zones, your subconscious will continue working on your creative challenge long after you have physically moved on.
And let’s not forget the simple benefits of being bored. Studies have linked boredom with enhanced individual productivity and creativity. In one such study, people who had gone through the boring task of sorting a bowl of beans by colour later out-performed artists when it came to generating creative ideas to solve a problem.
So the next time you are washing dishes, waiting for the photocopier or driving through an industrial wasteland, resist the urge to pop on a podcast, watch TV or listen to the radio. Instead, let your mind wander. It might become the spark that lights your newest great idea.
Do you have just 15 minutes in your day you could dedicate to switching off? Choose a time that suits you: maybe you’ll turn off the TV 15 minutes earlier before bed, or wake up 15 minutes earlier, or maybe you’ll take 15 minutes in the middle of the day for tea or after eating lunch:
- Turn off all screens and audio (not even music)
- Try not to chat. Just explain to people around you that you are taking 15 minutes out
- If you want to, try a simple meditation by sitting quietly and focusing on your breathing
- If meditation is not your thing, try sitting quietly and noticing – without judging – the things around you. Try to engage all your senses: what can you see, hear, smell, feel?
- Perhaps you can try drawing a simple mandala (there’s a tutorial on the next page)
- If you have access to some colouring pages, maybe indulge yourself. Try to choose something with lots of detail and small patterns – this will encourage your brain to focus on the shapes and be ‘in the moment’, rather than the desire to ‘create art’
When your 15 minutes are up, stretch, take some deep relaxing breaths, and get on with your day. If you do this every day, the positive effects will be cumulative.
The internet has opened us up to new worlds and enabled us to build communities and forge meaningful connections that would once have been impossible. But there is no denying it also plays a role in pouring ‘content’ – not always filtered or curated – into our brains, day and night, year after year.
- On average, each of us spends more than six and a half hours on the internet, every day (scary thought: extrapolate that average out among the world’s internet users, and we will collectively spend 1.2 billion years online in 2019)
- Connection speeds have markedly increased in the past year (by 18 per cent on mobile and a third on fixed connections), meaning we are consuming significantly more during those six-and-a-half hours each day
- On our mobile phones alone, each of us now consumes more than seven gigabytes of data every month
- Speaking of our phones, we love them – here in Oceania, the number of mobile phone connections, compared to total population, is 108 per cent
- We will spend, on average, roughly one seventh of our waking lives on social media
- Globally, we downloaded close to 200 billion apps to our phones last year
Statistics are taken from Global Digital reports prepared by Hootsuite and We Are Social, collated and shared in an article on thenextweb.com, called “Digital trends 2019: Every single stat you need to know about the internet”.