Juliet Funt on Implementing White Space


Busyness is stealing our creative, thinking and processing time, also known as our white space, said Juliet Funt, CEO of WhiteSpace at Work, at Leadercast Live 2019. Many of us fall victim to what Juliet called 'hallucinated urgency,' which she defined as a chronic mirage that tricks hardworking people into thinking everything they touch is urgent.

How Do Healthy Teams Combat This Phenomenon?

1. Trade objectivity about urgency. Healthy teams trust each other and keep other members from getting frantic when a member falls victim to hallucinated urgency.

2. Use the wedge between impulse and response. “Impulse control is a hard thing to develop in our jumpy, caffeinated culture at work,” said Juliet. Try to apply the wedge—a pause when you have the urge to say something—and ask yourself if what you want to say is time sensitive to work flow.

3. Use an idea repository. As ideas come to you, jot them down instead of acting immediately.

4. Use deadlines as support. Let deadlines free you, not hover over you. Know how long it takes you to do a project and when it’s due, and don’t let it intimidate you in the meantime.

5. Use the yellow list. Instead of immediately firing off an email to a colleague, keep a running list of everything you need to discuss with that person. If the topic has an attachment or necessary paper trail, send an email. If not, schedule a weekly meeting to discuss everything on your yellow list.

6. Incorporate white space into your day. Even if it’s a few minutes, schedule time to think freely. “White space is like a cool washcloth on the hot brow of hallucinated urgency,” said Juliet.


So hi, giant room of new friends. How are you doing? I'm fine. Thank you for asking. Nobody has ever asked. That is so sweet. 

We're going to start right on in by my telling you my family history. I come from a Jewish family, but we are not a candle-lighting type of Jewish family. We are more of an Adam Sandler type of Jewish family. Now what this means is we do not avoid pork or go to synagogue. We just feel guilty all the time for no clear reason. 

And one of the places that we're very, very Jewish is we love baked goods. And so, it was great news that my grandparents used to live next door to this very special delicatessen on K Street in Brooklyn, and they had the finest rye bread that you could find anywhere in the five boroughs of New York.

So every Friday afternoon, my grandmother used to send my grandfather down to the bakery to buy one fresh loaf. And all was right with the world, except for certain times that he would be waited on at that bakery by one particular sexy Russian sales girl who worked there. 

Now Stanley, my grandpa, was a little timid guy. He was a pharmacist. He was five-foot-nothing. And he would walk in the pharmacy and the little bell would ding-a-ling and he would always take a full minute to enjoy that bakery smell. And then he would head up to the counter and he would say to her, "Hello, I would like one loaf of that wonderful at rye bread please." And she would thwap open a brown paper bag. She would toss in the bread. Then she would lean seductively over the counter with just a little bit of flour on her cleavage. And she would say to him, "Vat else?" which if you come from a less exotic background is "What else?" 

But he didn't want anything else, but he also really, really hated to disappoint her. So he would just make something up. He would say, "Apricot cookies. I need apricot cookies." And the cookies would go in the bag and back she would come, "Vat else?" And this would go on and this would go on and on and on until about a half an hour later, he would climb the steps to the brownstone with bags, cookies, pies, cakes, rugelach. 

And my grandmother would stand at the top of those brownstone steps, watching him approach. And she would always call out exactly the same thing. She'd say, "Oh, I see you got some nice treats from Miss Vat Else. That's good, Stanley, because you're not getting any from me."

And it's true, the voice of Vat Else is ever present. It's around for us all the time because we live in a culture that loves quantity. Listen to our colloquial language and you will hear the tale "all you can eat, shop till you drop, two for one, the bottomless cup, buy one, get one free." More, more, more, more, more, more. And whatever we do, however hard we work, we get to the end of an exhausting, maximized, overachieving day and our head hits the pillow and a little voice says, "Vat else?" Vat else could you have done or been or bought or mastered or acquired? And whenever we get where we think we're going, she moves the finish line.

And the way that this shows up at work is that we stay very, very, very, very busy all day long showing off how much we can do, jamming and emails and meetings and decks and reports and paperwork and showing off the quantity of our workflow. And this results in a kind of chronic busyness and overload that I've spent 13 years of my life trying to solve. 

Building a company, helping companies, working with clients, working with customers to decrapify their workflow. And I am incredibly, incredibly passionate about this work for a couple of reasons. 

First of all, busyness is very expensive. So, just so you understand, in our client research, if you add up all those death-by-a-thousand-cut emails and CCs and FYIs and stupid reports, it's about a million dollars of annual busyness waste due to overload for every 50 people in an organization. It's a huge drain. 

But the other reason that I care so much about this is that when people are too busy, they have no white space. Busy cultures have no thinking time, processing time, recuperative time, creative time, the beautiful interstitial white space that can become the oxygen that lets everything else in the company catch fire.

So today, we're going to unpack just one element of what this frenzied overload, this culture of insatiability looks like. And we're going to get there with my mother as our guide. Yay. Somebody likes my mother. 

So my mother honestly is an anxious woman and it is not her fault. It's just the way she was raised. She cooks all the food for the dog from scratch because she doesn't trust what's in the store-bought. She cannot ride on a highway without reflexively deploying that door grabbing claw every time we approach the car in front of her. And if you do something that surprises my mother, like if a door slams in the wind or if a glass of water spills over, my mother goes, "Ah!" Really. And she can't help it. And she does it all the time. She's an "Ah"coholic.

Now I tell my mother all the time, "Panic is optional." But what's really interesting is I end up using this phrase all the time with my clients, because if you took my mother's process, her panicked pattern, and you removed the vocal track, what you would find is that the emotional tone that's left over is not so different from the way most of us experience a day at work. 

"The slides need to change. Ah! The boss sent an email. Ah! We have to do some custom work. Ah!" And we call this phenomenon hallucinated urgency. 

Hallucinated urgency is a mirage, a chronic mirage, that tricks wonderful, hardworking people into thinking that everything they touch is urgent, and it's absolutely exhausting. 

Now, I will tell you how powerful this is. If we got the donuts from this morning and we sprinkled magic mushrooms on them before you ate them, and then we all sat around and watched purple dragons come out from underneath the pretty white chairs, we would hardly be more delusional than what I see in busy companies every day. Hallucinated urgency all around you.

But healthy teams do it differently. They seek true urgency. They understand it, and then they fortify that reality by constantly checking with each other and by certain habits that maintain it. And that's what we're going to talk about today, is these five habits that help healthy teams. 

So number one, healthy teams trade objectivity about urgency. So if Sally works with Paul and Paul works with Sally, some days she is going to be more vulnerable to the mirage of urgency and some days he will be. So it's very, very important that they're constantly checking each other for reality. 

These healthy teams talk constantly out loud about what is time sensitive and what is not. Coding, queuing, slicing and dicing the events of the day so that it is very, very clear for everybody what they should be touching. 

And leaders do this as well. They don't just continue to delegate a giant pile. They say, "This comes before that." And "this comes before that" is such a simple but powerful gift from a leader. 

These teams also become brave because they trust each other, and so they push back when there is too much cumulative urgency in the system, and they choose something to deemphasize.

Next, healthy teams use the wedge between impulse and response. So going back to 2008 when my oldest son was 2, we created a special Father's Day surprise for Daddy. We made the ultimate man basket. We got this giant basket and we filled it with hot chocolate, Jack Daniels, candy. There was Led Zeppelin CDs in there, some cigars. It was fabulous. We wrapped it all in cello wrap and we put it in the trunk of the car. 

The plan was supposed to be that we would drive to this restaurant and then the valet would sneak out to the car during dessert and bring it in and give it as a present to my husband. But when we picked up Daddy, the second that he entered the car, my son turned to him and said, "There's a giant basket in the trunk for your full of candy and alcohol." We had gone over this plan like 400 times, but we just so sweetly looked at this beautifully developmentally normal complete lack of any impulse control and we laughed. 

But I have to tell you, a lot of professional people are not so far in front of him, because impulse control all is a very, very hard thing to develop in our jumpy, hyperactive, caffeinated culture at work. 

Now, impulse control is a cool head of reason. It's the ability to stop yourself before acting on an immediate desire, but it is the most endangered element of modern work. 

Now, you might have some luck if you use a technique for impulse control called the wedge. The wedge is a white space technique. And the idea of it is to insert, at the moment where you have a little desire to communicate or to share an idea or to interrupt someone, you take that little wedge of white space, thoughtful time, and you squeeze it right into that little interval between impulse and response. The wedge will slow you down and it will allow you to have a lucid choice about what you do next.

Because without it, most unevolved companies who don't do this kind of thoughtful work, they just have an idea and as they have the idea, it goes out of their mouth. It's just blah, blah, blah. It's like business Tourette's. Just the second you think it, it's right out of your mouth. So this wedge will slow you down and it will regain for you and your team a level of objectivity. 

Now once you have paused, you're able to ask yourself, "Which of the three levels of urgency does my need really fit into?" Does it fit into "it is not time sensitive"? That's level one, and it actually does occur, believe it or not, at work. Is it tactically time sensitive? Now, this is when speed to response is actually tied to a business result, and this is when you do want to act. Or is it emotionally time sensitive? And emotionally time sensitive just means you really, really, really, really feel like saying it, which is not a good enough reason at work. 

All right, item number three for healthy teams, they use an idea repository. One of our clients named Heather does training for a Fortune 2000 healthcare company, and they help a lot, a lot, a lot of people. And she had this wonderful idea. She was sitting at her desk one day and boom, it came into her head. She said, "I want to create stylized patient interview videos to humanize the end result of our process." And she had that idea high where she knew, "Oh, this is a good one." And she's very proactive, prides herself on being a mover and shaker who gets things done. 

So this proactive lady in one day, in one day, hired a writer, an editor, a director, and four actors to star in the sample videos. She worked for one week producing them at a cost of $16,000 to her organization. And at the end of the week, proudly showed them to her colleagues, at which point they informed her that a major competitor had done exactly the same thing one year prior. 

And this is what happens when ideas move too fast. Ideas are sexy, they're fun, and when we first have them, it's just like when we're dating a new person. We can't see flaws and our heart beats a little faster and everything looks so rosy. But the truth is that first ideas and final ideas should have some space between them. It's like that old adage that is often misattributed to Ernest Hemingway, "Write drunk. Edit sober."

So what we suggest at WhiteSpace and what we often observe in healthy teams is they use a tool called an idea repository. It's just a place where you can throw all of those marvelous ideas and let them quarantine for a little while before they actually take the time and energy of your team. Just write your ideas down and leave them there for a week, maybe two, maybe three. And when you come back to them, you'll see a different level of objectivity about that idea.

Number four, teams use deadlines as support. And I have to tell you, I think it's possible that this one is going to be a little bit controversial. Some of you are going to want to talk to me afterwards about this, but just hear me out. And this came largely out of my personal workflow and then infused into our teams and our clients. 

So when I was developing as a business woman, I always heard that leaving things until the last minute is a shameful act. That's procrastination, right? And then I realized that it's not the same when it's on purpose. When healthy teams lean into deadlines, when they know that a deadline is coming and they can use its solidity and its fortification to stimulate their action, they get amazing, amazing things done without shame about using that process. 

Now, I'll give you a perfect example. After many, many years of almost writing a book, we just recently made a deal with Harper Collins to write "The WhiteSpace Book," which we have been talking about for a very long time. And so, now it is my assignment to finally write the book that, very interestingly, a lot of people I think I already wrote, but we can talk about that later. 

So now I have 15 months to write this book and I know that's a long period of time, but it's also a short period of time because I run a training company full time. I have three children that I actually would like to parent. I speak all over the world, and I know how fast that will go. I also have the humble aspiration to write an actual good book, which might take slightly longer, right? 

Here's what I've found in the process to date. The monthly end writing deadline has created an unbelievable source of adrenaline and focus for me. I do write through the course of the month, but because I know that that end-of-month deadline is coming, I can lean into 29, 30, 31 might be a little crazy, but that's okay with me because it buys me so much peace in the rest of the month. And our entire team utilizes this technique. Our entire team knows that, when we have an event coming up or a new product launch, we will lean into it. 

Now, the obvious question that will occur to you is, "Does this ever become a problem? Does it ever turn into kind of a stressful fire drill?" Yeah, it does. Honestly, I would say maybe about two times a year it gets crazy. And then everybody gets a day off afterwards and we buy cookies for everybody and it's fine. But the unbelievable amount of energy and focus that is gained in the rest of the year is absolutely worth it. 

All right. Number five, teams use the yellow list. And in this section, we're going to talk about email, and we have to talk about email in any talk about urgency because clearly email is the Voldemort of workplace stress. So we have to address it. And the response time protocol of zipping back and forth and back and forth is just debilitating. But not so for this one client that I had at General Motors. 

And he was a manager that really fascinated me because he had such an incredibly emotionally-casual relationship with his email. It was almost detached. And I asked him how it became that way, and he said when he was really young in the company, they used to get . . . this was before email. They used to get these communication envelopes every and Friday. It was a manila envelope with the little stringy thing that you wrap around the circle in the back, and it was filled with memos and faxes and stone tablets and whatever you communicated with back then, right?

And so, he'd get the one on Wednesday, he'd start reading it, he wouldn't be done on Friday. He's a young guy. He's trying to sell cars. And then he'd get the Friday one and he wasn't ready for that either. And it started encroaching on his weekend. Didn't know what to do. 

So he went to an older and very successful guy in the company. He said, "How do you manage these communication envelopes?" The guy said, "Come with me," and he took him out to the parking lot. They walked up to his car. He opens the back, and in a spotlessly clean trunk, he reveals precisely three items: a gym bag, a jack, and a giant box of unopened manila envelopes. He says, "Listen, I get the envelope, I write the date on it, I throw it in the trunk. I leave it for three months. If no one asks me about it, I throw it away." "And no one ever asks," he says.

Now, to what degree can people detach this way from email? I don't know. Have you guys heard about email bankruptcy? Do you know what this is? This is when people have thousands of unread emails in their inbox and on one wild-minded day they just hit "select all, delete." I'm out. They say to their address book, "Try again. I am out."

Now, I'm not advocating this technique, by all means. I'm not advocating that. I'm also not advocating throwing your email in the trunk and forgetting about it, but these stories tell a story about how you can turn a volitional dial between technicolor and pastel, of this emotional intense response to your email. It's controllable. It can sometimes even dip right down to black and white. 

Now, a technique that will help you is called the Yellow List. Here's how this works. The Yellow List is a little document that you keep in your phone or computer and it's a repository again, a place where you keep all your non-time-sensitive things that you need to talk to each other about. You can keep one Yellow List per person, or you can keep a master Yellow List that is segmented by the names of your team. 

Here's how it works for email. When you're about to send an email, you take that little tiny white space pause again, we're using the wedge, and you think, "Should this actually be an email? Is it email-ish? Does it have an attachment or a forward or a link or something that needs to live within the realm of email?" If not, perhaps it can just be shelved onto the Yellow List. 

And then these items accumulate and accumulate. And when you're ready, you have a Yellow List debrief, and I sit down with you and you sit down with me and bang, bang, bang. We go through the list and it's so much faster and easier. Your inbox will feel like a veritable ghost town if you get everyone to use this technique. 

Now, there is one more thing that wonderful teams have, and that is white space. They have some time in their day to think and be free. And white space is the cool washcloth on the fevered brow of hallucinated urgency, because when you have it, work just feels different. 

And I want all of you to have it. I want all of you to have it so much that I decided to give you a gift. I was going to make big muffins, but there's a lot of people here. So we're going to give you a different gift.

Can you put up that tool slide? So we're going to give everybody here a free tool that you can use with your teams at home. If you want to play along, take out your phones pretty much. 

Now here's what we're going to do. I'm going to explain it first. Your free tool is going to be a three-part digital learning program to teach your teams the basics of white space. You're going to do one 11-minute lesson each week and then discuss on the fourth week the application ideas for your team. 

So if you can put that URL up. The instructions will be reposted, but we need that URL, and it's leadercastteams.com. I don't know what the Wi-Fi is like here, if you can go now or you want to write it down later. Leadercastteams.com for a complimentary tool with which you can bring white space into your teams.

So I always like to call today the beginning of relationships. My personal email address is juliet@whitespaceatwork.com. Write me. Reach out to me. Tell me your stories. Share your results. Tell me how hallucinated urgency shows up in your companies. I'm fascinated to hear from you. 

And the very last stop we're going to take today is in Disney World in Florida. So in Disney World, in Florida, specifically the Epcot Center . . . do you guys know Epcot where they have all the little mini countries? My walking partner, George, used to go there every summer with his family and he always went . . . it was mother, father, George, sister, and grandma, grandma who was not wheelchair-dependent, but who was wheelchair-enjoyant. You know, it's the halfway point between she's in a little and then she's out a little, right? 

So they're going through and they go to Mini Canada and they have all little poutine and everybody is so polite in Mini Canada. And then they go to Mini China and they buy a big stuffed panda bear, and then they go to Mini Italy. And in Mini Italy, the shopping is so good that all the ladies are in the shop. Grandma's up out of the chair. They're looking at Mona Lisa shot glasses. They have a make your own gelato kit. There's a fake pope walking around blessing everybody in Mini Italy. 

And they're having such a good time except for George. George is outside and he is so bored. He is so bored. He is 8-year-old boy-bored shopping and shopping and culture and shopping and culture, and he's melting into the ground, until he notices the empty wheelchair.

And at first, he doesn't do anything. And then, you know, he just sort of tests with his butt a little bit just on the edge of the chair. And then, parents of boys, we can see this one coming. In 15 seconds, he becomes the Evel Knievel of wheelchairs, right? And he's spinning and he's flipping. He's going faster. He starts going faster and faster and faster and faster toward the shop just as his mother is exiting the shop. And he smashes her in the shins with those two metal footrests. 

And this woman, she loses it. She loses it. And she's got the panda in her hand and she starts whacking him with the panda, "George, George, George, George, George." And very slowly, all the people of Mini Italy begin to become hyper-aware of this woman who is wailing on a boy who appears to be in a wheelchair. 

And so George does what any red-blooded child would do being whooped by a panda bear. He runs away, and then there is this pause. And mother looks at the crowd, and in one second, she understands the whole thing. She figures out everything that's happened. She puts a gigantic smile on her face, turns to the people, and says, ''It's a miracle.'' 

Now, an empty wheelchair in the presence of a bored 8-year-old boy, that is a space that's going to be filled. You can bet your hat on it. Just like your time, in the presence of hallucinated urgency, that's a space that's going to be filled, unless you and your team choose differently, unless you pursue true levels of urgency, and you protect each other's nervous systems by returning to that surety over and over and over. 

And that's it for me. Thank you very much.
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Juliet Funt

WhiteSpace at Work is a training and consulting firm that helps organizations, their leaders and their employees flip the norms of business in order to reclaim their creativity, productivity and engagement. As CEO, Juliet helps profes...

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