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Filling the 'White Space'

During performance report and awards writing season, I often hear “get rid of the white space," in reference to the gap at the end of a bullet statement on the forms. 

There is an unwritten rule that in military performance reports and awards; white space symbolizes missed opportunities or decreased performance. Lately, I feel like the same concept has been applied to calendars as well. In the outlook calendar system a time slot without an appointment or meeting shows as a “white space” on the screen or printout.  Whenever I see even a tiny sliver of white space on my calendar, I get surprised and then happy. These tiny slivers of time allow for self-reflections and the creation of tomorrow’s unimagined opportunity.

I argue calendars should not be like awards bullets, white space on a calendar IS important.  It doesn’t mean you aren’t busy enough, it doesn’t mean you need to take on another project or additional duty to fill the time. Think about the times in your life when you solved a complicated problem, made a pivotal decision, developed a brilliant idea, found connection with another person, or synergy within a group.  Were you running from one meeting to get to another meeting? Were you scrolling social media on your phone? Were you responding to emails? Probably not! 

For me the best solutions, decisions, ideas, and connections develop when I am reflecting either by myself or with others, when I am taking time to listen with no agenda, when I am not in a rush to move on to the next event. When I am at gatherings that do not have PowerPoint slideshows, talking points, or meeting invites, but have open discussion and judgment free reflection on thoughts.    

All of the Air Forces “Airman Comprehensive assessment worksheets” have a section on “self” and a question asks if the ratee “understands the importance of setting time aside to assess self.” I am guessing everyone answers “yes, understands” when they are filling out this form.  But do we understand? Do we do it? Do we carve out time to reflect and learn from events and interactions deeper than the information needed for an after action report? 

Quiet times of reflection are crucial to innovation and creativity. Our Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Charles Q. Brown, has charged us to “accelerate change or lose” and to “empower our incredible Airmen to solve any problem.” I assert it is of utmost importance to provide white space in your day, to allow ideas and solutions to be developed in response to the CSAF’s charge.    

In today’s world of telework, I have seen many people (myself included) manage to attend two virtual meetings at one time or finish a virtual meeting while physically sitting in an unrelated meeting.  This brings a whole new meaning to the term “double booked.” Being busy to the point of being ineffective should not be a badge of honor. White space in our calendars needs to be prioritized and respected in order to encourage creative and innovative connections. Be intentional about blocking time off for “white space activities” so the time will not get filled or overrun with other events. In Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown warns: “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”      

The next time you are staring at two empty white spaces at the end of a performance report bullet, resist the urge to immediately fill it with exclamation points; step away from the keyboard. Take the time to engage the Airman you are writing about or take a walk by yourself to reflect. You may come back to your desk with a more creative way to drive home the impact of your airman’s accomplishment or a stronger connection to your team. In this case, white space on your calendar could help fill white space on a performance report. 

I challenge you to open up time for yourself and your Airmen to do “nothing” it may create unimaginable solutions, decisions, ideas, and connections which will support the Air Force efforts to accelerate change or lose. If we want our Air Force to be more innovative we must make time for white space.

If my point didn’t come across by now, just know I was in another meeting while writing this article…