On the need for whitespace in our overloaded lives

On the need for whitespace in our overloaded lives

As the pace of life continues to increase and the amount of information we consume reaches all-time highs, I’ve been reflecting on how we live with overload in our lives.

Life overload — not a new concept

Overload is not a new concept. But in the wired (and wireless) digital age we live in, it’s safe to say the issue of overload has reached epidemic proportions. Epic amounts of data flow our way on a daily basis, and if you’re like most people, you have poorly developed coping mechanisms. (Clay Shirky would say you’re experiencing filter failure).

How do you cope with ever-increasing amounts of information coming your way? Do you try harder, read faster, work longer? Do you try to multitask to get more done in the day?


The consequences of overload: lack of whitespace

In a tremendously insightful article on the topic titled “Recovering from Information Overload” (a must-read), the McKinsey Quarterly outlines the consequences of information overload and multitasking, including:

  • It slows us down.
  • It hampers creativity.
  • It makes us anxious.
  • It’s addictive.

“The root of the problem is that our brain is best designed to focus on one task at a time. When we switch between tasks, especially complex ones, we become startlingly less efficient: in a recent study, for example, participants who completed tasks in parallel took up to 30 percent longer and made twice as many errors as those who completed the same tasks in sequence.” — “Recovering from Information Overload”, McKinsey Quarterly


Whitespace is a critical element in design. Whitespace allows a design to breathe. No whitespace means clutter. Confusion. Stress. Likewise, we need whitespace in our own lives. Time to reflect. Time to unplug. Time to slow down. Without it, creativity suffers. Health suffers. Performance suffers.

Coping with overload

Here are some helpful coping mechanisms for this information overload problem:

Choose to focus. Choose to turn off the radio while you’re driving to create time for reflection. Choose to close your email program completely for several hours a day, and turn off your instant messenger and any other distractions. Focus is a choice. It doesn’t just happen to you.

Filter like crazy. Quantity is not king. Consider your goal to filter for just the best information and be ruthless about filtering out all the rest. A couple of filters to consider:

  • Friends or colleagues. Find those people who are already sifting through the enormous amount of information and follow them. That might mean following them on Facebook, Twitter, or even asking them to email you when they come across something really good.
  • Software/tools. There are lots of free web-based tools out there — too many to mention. For example, rather than going out and visiting blogs you read, subscribe to them in Google Reader. There are also tools emerging that look through your social connections for what content is being talked about the most.

Be picky about what you consume. You don’t have to read every article or watch every video someone sends you, even if it is interesting.

“You have to guard against the danger of overeating at an interesting intellectual buffet.” — Gary Loveman, “Recovering from Information Overload”, McKinsey Quarterly


When I read blogs or other publications that I subscribe to, I regularly ask myself the question — “On a scale of 1 to 10, is this blog so good that my life/career/etc. would be less effective without it?” Anything less than an 8 gets unsubscribed to immediately.

Don’t be afraid to forget. Don’t feel compelled to keep everything in your head. Sometimes you just need to make room! There are many tools today that can help you remember things that you might feel are important, but don’t know when you’ll need.

Email providers like Gmail and Outlook have very strong search capabilities — so as long as you can remember a couple of keywords, you can find pretty much any email in just a couple of minutes. No need to come up with complex filing systems to organize your emails.

Bookmark services like Delicious enable you to bookmark any article, video, page, etc. that you find interesting and give that bookmark tags that allow you to search for it later without having to remember the name of the article, where it was published, and other helpful pieces of information. For example I use this to bookmark great recipes, new tools I find out about, articles I find particularly insightful that I might want to refer back to and so on.

Finally, tools like Evernote exist to help you “remember everything.” You can use the tool to take notes, record audio/video, bookmark interesting content, and more. Even better, Evernote is web-based, so you can use it from any computer, iPad, iPhone, laptop, etc. So you aren’t tied to one device to use it.

Take control and go forth!

Remember that information overload doesn’t just happen to you. It’s a choice (or more appropriately, a series of choices). You can take control, and you need to take control. For your own health. For your creative ability. For your ability to be truly effective in life.

Go and do it!

Dave Raley Director of Digital Marketing