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A Letter To Thomas Jefferson And The Case For White Space
Image by Christian Fregnan on Unsplash (altered)

Determine never to be idle. No person will have occasion to complain of the want of time who never loses any. It is wonderful how much can be done if we are always doing – advising his daughter Martha, 1787. – Thomas Jefferson

Dear Mr. Jefferson,

It saddens me that you instilled into your daughter the belief that “always doing” is beneficial. I wonder how that worked for her. Perhaps it was the way of the 18th century, but with all due respect, I say poppycock!

This is a myth that needs to be dismantled. It’s time to redefine idleness and challenge the need to be “always doing”.

This notion that we get more done when we are constantly doing is a great example of the law of diminishing returns. It ignores the need for rest, recharge, re-creation. Where and when do we get to think and dream? To just noodle?

Sloth or idleness?

How do you define idleness, TJ? Did you never walk around the grounds of Monticello while dreaming up the Declaration of Independence or working through a gnarly design problem? I find a walk to be an amazing stimulus for my creativity. I’m re-creating and enjoying the fresh air while I write in my head or marvel at the ideas that pop up. I often use the voice-recorder on my iPhone. You would have loved that.

What about sitting down with a beloved book?

Perhaps you consider staring out the window to be idleness? Again, I disagree. Sometimes it can be hard to do sit and woolgather. However, when I do I find that the quality of the ideas and creativity that come up is better than anything that emerges when I have my nose to the grindstone that is my desk!

For me, the concept of idleness or what could be considered non-productivity is a struggle and something I work on and toward. Yes, I hear the irony in that. But I have come to understand its intrinsic value. Now, understand, I not talking about sitting around the house in curlers and a housecoat, a cigarette dangling from my mouth, watching Jerry Springer. That is sloth, not idleness. There’s a vast difference.

Idling or recharging

But I get it, this tug of constant productivity. The way that even downtime has to be structured and busy. It’s an attitude that has carried over from my years of working in corporate where busy-ness was a measure of my value. When I slip back into that mindset, no matter what I do it’s never enough. I go down a rabbit hole and fizzle out. Then I need to recharge. And in that situation my recharging choices are not always the best. Surfing the internet, computer games… You have no idea, TJ, of the ways we can be “idle” here in the 21st century.

Therefore, I’d rather weave “idle” recharging into my day. Even as I write this I will occasionally turn around and gaze out the window. The sky is autumn blue and the leaves are getting sparse. The sun slants in at a lower angle and casts long shadows. My mind relaxes and thoughts untangle. Sitting and looking out the window is just what I need at times. And then I turn back to the page.

White space

So, did you ever consider the beauty of white space on your calendar, TJ? A block of time that has no commitment. Expansive and luxurious. Where all things are possible. Yes, it may also produce anxiety, bring up the habitual need to fill it with something productive, something meaningful and purposeful. However, what I’m finding is that meaningful and purposeful don’t live on the hamster wheel. They live in our heart centers and if we are constantly “doing” as you are advising your daughter, we will never learn what they have to teach us. We will never hear their song that carries us into our Multidimensional Lives.  Here’s a beautiful article by Leo Babauta titled “Life’s Missing White Space.” He discusses how white space in design provides greater legibility, luxury, breathing room and balance. And then he applies these concepts to life.

What would white space look like for you?

The reality is that staying in that high activity mode, 24/7 is not healthy. It keeps the adrenaline pumping, causing stress and all those things that cascade down from that state. That state begets more need for productivity and the feeling that whatever we do is not quite enough. Certainly, I could do more. It keeps us on the hamster wheel.

Am I alone in this?

I’m curious, reader. What does idleness bring up for you? Do you need to be always “doing” or knowing what’s next? Could you use help in slowing the hamster wheel of endless productivity and defining what your white space might look like? Contact me and learn how working together can bring ease, possibilities and, yes, some of that well-deserved white space into a busy life.

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