A Minute to Think:
Reclaim Creativity, Conquer Busyness, and Do Your Best Work
by Julilet Funt
After finishing this book in November of 2021, I wrote,
"This book is such a testament and fun exposition of the power and pleasure of slowing down to take a 'minute to think,' to love the journey, and to be more effective, all at the same time."
My clippings below collapse a 288-page book into 6 pages, measured by using 12-point type in Microsoft Word."
If you want a three-minute side trip before reading my notes from Juliet's book...
Check out her father Alan Funt's interview with her when she was maybe seven years old.
Here are the selections I made:
The solution, I have discovered, is something called white space—freed time in the day to think (and breathe, and ponder, and plan, and create).
In it you’ll learn important concepts such as how to measure the hidden cost of your busyness and the four ways to use the strategic pause (the way to access white space).
Without space we can’t sustain ourselves. The full fortitude of our professional contributions eludes us. We miss game-changing, breakthrough ideas that fail to grace us with their presence because busyness is barring the door. We miss human moments of serendipity and connection that should occur in the in-between moments of life—because in-between moments no longer exist.
The tyranny of the urgent subjects us to a thousand forms of daily pressure and stress. But finding time to solve this problem of overwhelm seems impossible. Tragically, we are too busy to become less busy, and our 3:00 a.m. insomnia provides the only unscheduled thinking time of the day.
Somewhere deep in our subconscious we think to ourselves: “If only I could plan before I act.” “If only I could think before I speak.” “If only I could rest before I have to turn back on.”
Juliet B. Schor, an economist who eloquently writes about our life and work in the shadow of consumerism and time pressure, calls the way we choose to operate “performative busyness.”
If only activity and productivity were the same—but they are not. There is visible work and invisible work. Thinking, pondering, considering, reframing, mulling, concocting, questioning, and dreaming—none of these require a single muscle to be moved in order to be enacted.
Call it gap, buffer, slack, or margin, allowing white space between our endless doing makes everything better.
Frank had a rule that he would dock the pay of any employee who worked through lunch, because he wanted his staff to be truly present for every afternoon patient—and it worked, and they thanked him. He taught his interns to stop outside the door of every exam room for around thirty seconds before entering to align themselves physically, mentally, and emotionally. Some of his protégés said it was the single most valuable thing they learned over a three-year residency.
But here’s all you need to do to access the freedom of white space: Take a strategic pause. Find one. Make one. Allow one. Just the tiniest littlest moment every single day of your life and you are transformed. Full stop. One second of pause. Five seconds of pause. Grab what you can and dance around the room.
Three main factors have placed us on the moving walkway to overwork: insatiability, conformity, and waste.
The trouble is, “Did I do enough?” is always the wrong question.
But no CEO, company, or entrepreneur ever has it all together the way they seem to on a panel or web page. I have seen behind that curtain. But they sure seem like it. They seem more successful, more happy, more savvy, and more hardworking (than us). These curb appeal fantasies, based on the slimmest of superficial observations, prime the pump of never enough.
“Less” liberates. “Less” gives us the possibility of the pause. “Less” makes work smarter and more productive. Microsoft Japan conducted an in-house study looking at the effects of a four-day workweek and found that it increased productivity by 40 percent while overhead costs decreased by nearly a quarter. Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens both worked four to five hours a day and on that schedule wrote nineteen and twenty-one books, respectively (with time for letter writing, social lunches, and extended midday strolls). Less can be the new more if we give it a chance.
How could an authoritative leader waste his own time like that? It’s because the cult of overwork had made him drink the Kool-Aid.
They CC me on everything, but more broadly find our culture an adjustment as a Results Only Work Environment, or ROWE. This means the only thing we care about are results, not when or where an employee works. Not if they work on a weekend, weekday, evening, morning, in a box, with a fox, or in a tweetle beetle battle with a noodle-eating poodle.
Our conformity and brainwashing cause us to compete for bragging rights in these corporate hunger games. “I worked till two a.m. last night.” “I don’t need a lunch break.” Vast portions of the workforce simply steel themselves for a painful inevitability: Work is just going to get busier, heavier, and more filled with frustration . . . forever.
REMEMBER THIS Insatiability—the desire to constantly want more and better of everything—must be understood and questioned. Social conformity reinforces problematic beliefs and habits. Positive conformity can change this paradigm. We have too much complacency around low-value tasks and wasteful work, which are extremely expensive in terms of human energy and talent time. Adding mortar (behavioral changes) to the bricks (logistical changes) makes the house of efficiency we are building more stable.
Both mindfulness and meditation hold an underlying premise that our minds should be softly directed. We are teaching them a new relationship with intrusive thoughts. When a thought appears during either of these practices, we notice it but do not become engaged with it. Some imagine thoughts as clouds that visit, and then visualize them floating off or popping like a bubble, because where the thoughts are heading, we do not follow. This is the line of demarcation. In white space we may follow thought. We may follow ideas. We dismiss constraints fully. That dog may run through the park without the leash. With ultimate freedom, our minds explore, stretch, and recover.
Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, spent an hour a day in what he called “looking out the window time.”
He writes, “In terms of using mental energy creatively, perhaps the most fundamental difference between people consists in how much uncommitted attention they have left over to deal with novelty.”
To enter open mode, Cleese says we must create “boundaries in space and boundaries in time,” taking ourselves away from people and obligations for a specific period. His advice is to simply noodle until you get a payoff. “If you keep resting against the subject in a friendly but persistent way, sooner or later you will get a reward from your subconscious. Maybe in the shower later or maybe at breakfast, but a new thought will suddenly appear—if you’ve put in the pondering time first.”
We need a variation of white space that’s short yet powerful, and I have just the thing. It’s a supremely elegant and adaptable form of white space called the Wedge. The Wedge is a small portion of white space inserted between two activities. It’s used specifically to pry apart actions or events that without it would have been connected. The Wedge buys you a moment to think, plan, or compose yourself. It’s as versatile as can be. It’s a nimble power move any of us can use on our own and, when applied as a team, it dramatically lowers stress and improves communication and cohesion.
The Wedge always has bookends and is typically short. It quickly separates two actions or experiences to uncompress them and allow the passage of oxygen.
Our equilibrium improves as we use the Wedge to maintain composure in the face of stress. At an unexpected moment of disappointment, frustration, anger, or professional crisis, inserting a wedge allows us to regain our poise before reacting. And the Wedge helps us redefine our relationship with waiting. Waiting for the tank to fill, waiting in line, or waiting for our coffee to brew—all these moments now can be recast as opportunities for a lucky, liberating, involuntary pause.
The handy guideline is this: If it feels like white space (like you’re leash-free and running through the park), you’re probably doing it right. The visceral experience should be of mental liberty in some form, so if you’re out for a run without headphones, I’d call that white space. If you’re on a treadmill in front of Breaking Bad, with your mind tethered to the show—not so much.
When taken to extremes the Thieves of Time become corrupted. Drive becomes overdrive. Excellence becomes perfectionism. Information becomes information overload, and Activity becomes downright frenzy.
We mindlessly accept a meeting invite, because we are driven. We overtweak a presentation, because we want to be excellent. We go too deep into dashboards and data, because we want to be informed. We impulsively grab the next to-do on our list, because we feel we should always be active.
Drive THE CON: We should take on as much as we can handle. THE TRUTH: Being selective about goals brings higher quality of output. Excellence THE CON: Every touch point deserves to be optimized. THE TRUTH: We lose time and energy mired in unnecessary detail. Information THE CON: There is no such thing as having too much knowledge. THE TRUTH: Our human brains can consume only so much information. Activity THE CON: Busy and productive are the same. THE TRUTH: Always being in motion can limit thought and deplete us.
Like the value system of more, the thieves operate according to a psychological construct called the “hedonic treadmill,” which states, “Whatever we have, we will adapt to it, and soon we will want more.” The hedonic treadmill, sometimes referred to as hedonic adaptation, is our tendency to reset our level of contentment after each advance. As we achieve more (drive), finesse more (excellence), know more (information), and do more (activity), we get used to each new plateau and quickly feel it’s a little unexciting. Whenever we get where we think we are going, the finish line moves.
Each simple question points you to the cream, to clearing a path to your most important work. These twenty-five words provide a framework and shareable language I can’t wait for you to have. I use them personally just about every week of my life: Is there anything I can let go of? Where is “good enough,” good enough? What do I truly need to know? What deserves my attention?
Four questions will help you artfully direct the application of Drive, Excellence, Information, and Activity. Is there anything I can let go of? (for Drive) Where is “good enough,” good enough? (for Excellence) What do I truly need to know? (for Information) What deserves my attention? (for Activity)
Your hairstyle is your choice. Your hobbies are your choice. Your words are your choice. Urgency is your choice. Your boss and team can write a story that blankets everything with a light dusting of mania, but you don’t have to buy in. In fact, by opting out of this particular form of social conformity you serve yourself and your company better.
The three categories of urgency will help you recalibrate what’s immediate and what can wait: NOT TIME SENSITIVE: When an immediate answer is not needed. TACTICALLY TIME SENSITIVE: When fast action is tied to a business result. EMOTIONALLY TIME SENSITIVE: When a feeling of urgency stems from emotion, curiosity, or stress.
Parking your non–time sensitive requests and needs on the Yellow List will streamline your communication and reduce email and messaging. When you curb urgency, your executive presence will become stronger. Vacation time is critical to focus and creative contribution. We should not let false urgency steal it from us.
I’ll provide some templates and strategies for what to say, but first, let’s address the choice to say nothing at all. I want you to commit to rejecting “the coward’s no”—ghosting.
Take a moment to remember the last time someone ghosted you in the middle of an exchange. Reexperience how dismissive and unkind it felt and use that sense memory to commit to playing a braver game. Decide that saying nothing is not an option.
These scripts are appropriate for straightforward interactions and binary yes/no decisions: “May I take twenty-four hours to get back to you?” Buy yourself time to work the Hourglass. When the interpersonal contact is broken, the intellect engages, better equipping you to make rational decisions. “I can do it for you this time, but I can’t do it for you every time.” Ease a demanding person back slowly from their expectations, and set up a future no. “It does not (or will not) work for me to . . .” This clause is a marvelous neutral beginning to any no. Be cautious of harshness in your tone. “I can’t, but here is another option for you.” (No, plus a substitute.) Share an alternative or suggestion in place of your being able to help. “It’s not good for me now, but let’s look ahead in our calendars.” (Yes, but in the future.) Be careful you’re not using a delay to avoid a necessary no. Of course, if timing is really the issue, then push the commitment back. “Sweetie, please take the no.” To use with children asking for the forty-third time if they can do or have something. “Mother/sister/brother/honey, I’m going to give that one a pass.” Use this easy phrase with family to practice no when the stakes are low. “Thanks for your directness.” A phrase to use when you’re on the other side of the no. “Sorry, no.” Yes, it’s a complete sentence. Get it out and then say nothing more.
Dear Boundaryless Client, We certainly love working with you. (This is the first slice of graciousness.) Squeezing this important request in over the weekend won’t work for us. (This is the no. Just get it out.) Your deliverables are very important, and we want to make sure they get the focus they deserve. (Second slice of graciousness. This sentence shows good intention and some effort at gentle repair for their disappointment.) We would be happy to give this our full attention early Monday morning and have some numbers to you by end of business. Best, Chris
Resist the urge to teach them a lesson. As in, “We feel it’s unreasonable to make this request at the end of a Friday.” It’s tempting to try to show them the unfairness in their approach, but it’s not helpful to your cause.
Dear Mr. Honcho, I’d be really excited to take this on. (This is the first slice of graciousness.) I do have a number of other high-priority projects you’ve given me this month. Can you help me determine which should be at the top of my list to dive into to meet our goals and which can be delayed or perhaps rethought? (This is the no. The “which” implies that some tasks will remain and some will be cut, handed to others, or deprioritized. This shows some fortitude but in the softest way.) Could we spend a few minutes reviewing my projects and the deadlines that will work best for you? (Just the lightest smidge of deference mixed with showing off an organized plan for delivering the best outcome.) I appreciate your help. (The second slice of graciousness.) Best, Betty Backbone
Unspoken appreciations are the saddest kind of verbal abdication. There is only one good thing about them—how easily they disappear. Dislodge one unspoken appreciation from your heart and it will inspire you to share ten more the next day. You can begin them with words like these: I may have never said this, but . . . I was so impressed when . . . I have always admired you because . . . I realize a fault of mine has been . . . I like you. Not just like you but “like you” like you, so . . . I would love to know more about . . . One of my favorite memories is . . . I’ve been meaning to tell you that . . . Thank you so much for the time . . . What’s wonderful about you is . . .
Begin training yourself to put Hall Time between every meeting on your calendar, including conference calls, video calls, and one-on-ones. If you’re implementing Hall Time on your own, you can telegraph these gaps by scheduling meetings with the calendar default of 45–50 minutes and 20–25 minutes, respectively, for 60- and 30-minute expectations.
Phone Narration is the action of describing out loud what you are doing when using any screen-based device. It’s handy for keeping the human-to-human link when the digital ice-cream truck drives by.
Remember this version of a classic progression: Just because something is kind and honest doesn’t mean it needs to be said. Just because something needs to be said, doesn’t mean it needs to be said by you. Just because something needs to be said by you, doesn’t mean it needs to be said now.
One team made a collective goal of each person having one night off per week. The “Predictable Time Off” (PTO) experiment featured a team commitment to rotate evenings where one person was totally disconnected from work and wireless devices.
When my father interviewed kids for Candid Camera, his favorite part of his work, he had a challenge. How could he quickly break through the intimidation felt by a little child toward a big unknown adult? He did so by lighting a match and feigning difficulty in blowing it out. Balanced on the edge of a preschool-size chair, he would huff and puff with theatrical overacting, turning finally to the youngster and saying, “Can you help me?” And they would. Moments later, my dad and his new friend would be chatting about guardian angels, the wonders of spaghetti, money, and a host of other delightful topics. The gap my father was closing is called the “power distance,” a concept developed by Professor Geert Hofstede. This phenomenon can cause people to avoid or defer to those they feel are more powerful and, in doing so, to shut down channels of honest communication. By asking for help, my father broke the power distance and opened a gateway to closeness with each and every match blower. If you lead at least a few people, this section is for you. And in order to develop the closeness needed to build a white space team, you’ll need to address the same lopsided dynamics as my father. You must ask for help, step out of having all the answers, and truly enlist a wide spectrum of input to move toward the changes you want. Speak to people about their needs, desires, and enthusiasms. And make it more than a gesture, authentically being open to using the ideas that spring from these conversations. The following steps will show you how.
FIX THE ROAD, NOT THE CAR.
Bronnie Ware, an Australian palliative care nurse, became famous for her arresting writings and book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, about her patients in the final twelve weeks of life. Though her list has been widely published, it can’t be shared often enough. If not for the heaviness of its message, it should be posted on every fridge and bathroom mirror for every person on this earth to reread daily. The top five regrets of dying people were: I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Ware writes that her patients were flooded with deeply perceptive insights in those final days, and underlines the fact that the second regret listed was actually the number one regret for every single male patient: “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
Try a little experiment. Sit on the couch and tell yourself you deserve to do absolutely nothing for ten minutes. Put your feet up and exhale. Then listen as your home bursts into life like an animated movie. You’ll begin to hear demands from different tasks around your home. The gutters say clean me. The dishes say wash me. The closet says, Marie Kondo me. This rising chorus becomes louder until it yanks you up two-fisted by your collar and you begin to do. And that’s just the voices of the inanimate objects! When flesh-and-blood humans join in the cacophony of requests, you’ll be running in six directions before you realize it. You don’t believe in the basic permission to stop. I wish I had the power to grant this permission to you. If there was an incantation or potion that I could bequeath to you, I’d crawl on my knees to get it. The best I can do is tell you, “I, Juliet Funt, imperfect mother and businesswoman, give you permission to stop.”
We also need permission to exit the “compare and despair” game, because keeping up with the Joneses is based on untruths and robs you of white space.
When the thieves jump into our briefcase and follow us home, they manifest slightly differently: Drive tells us we must build enormous wealth and maintain an array of belongings that will impress others. Excellence tells us that no level of fitness, housekeeping, children’s accomplishments, parental perfection, volunteering, or hobby mastering is enough. Information tells us we must know everything about the news, sports, cultural happenings, and the latest trends to feel up to date. Activity tells us that the more we squeeze into the evenings and weekends, the more we do and contribute, the more points we get at the end of the game of life.
Outside of work, we can ask ourselves: “Is there anything I can let go of?” to help us question and reexamine after-school activities, volunteer commitments, energy-sucking friendships, lessons, and personal projects, stripping away those that don’t make the cut. “Where is ‘good enough,’ good enough?” to help us lovingly relax the standard by which we do everything at home and to talk back to the driving perfectionism that can exhaust us in our off time. “What do I truly need to know?” to help us examine the amount of information, research, and detail we need in our personal lives. “What deserves my attention?” to help us focus more narrowly on the people and activities that we genuinely adore.
Perhaps we should borrow the Italian concept of “dolce far niente,” literally translated as “the sweetness of doing nothing.”
When is the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago. When is the second-best time? Today.
Whatever “it” is for you—family, service, travel, hobbies—white space interlaced in your day will allow you to rush out there. Take a brief strategic pause, jump to your feet, and let the chair fall.
Professional achievement is not a substitute for happiness, personal connection, and meaning. Many people eventually experience intense regret for having worked too hard. This regret can be avoided by having more white space with your loved ones and passions. The Thieves of Time—Drive, Excellence, Information, and Activity—show up at home in our compulsive and competitive doing, comparing, and overachieving. In order to have a life at home with depth, you must dethrone your devices so you can be present for the people who matter most. If you’re a parent, it’s never too late to slow down, pay attention, and share white space with your children. Don’t miss the ride. ASK YOURSELF What do I need to seize right now before I miss it?