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  • Writer's pictureDave Disbury

Six Ways to Create Space in Times of Overwhelm

“What do you need?” “I don’t know, but I might if I just had some space!” These were my words years ago in the midst of overwhelm after we’d just had our first child. I’m nothing like as sleep deprived now, but the intensity of the last few months has reminded me of that comment.

“I’m lacking any space that’s restful,” a friend with a house full said to me recently. But this statement was also echoed by a friend living alone. 

A lockdown tweet read “I feel like I’m not working from home but living at work.” Where boundaries between work and home life have become thin, together with the pressure to ‘prove productivity,’ the need for space can feel all the more important, but harder to reach. 

What might ‘space’ look like right now? We can’t pack any more into an already at capacity day but we can try to take small steps to punctuate it with little breaths of space. 

1. Space to notice

How am I feeling right now? Am I giving myself permission to notice and name this? We bring our whole selves to work (whether our commute is 20 miles or 20 steps upstairs). Sometimes the drive to ‘produce’ can be a numbing agent. Helpful at times, but not sustainable. When we acknowledge our humanness - to ourselves and to others - we give others permission to do the same and we build a bridge for connection. Are the expectations I have of myself realistic right now in the context of the uncertainties and anxieties of being human in a pandemic?

2. Space before responding 

The perceived pressure (external and internal) to have an instant response to something (an email, a social media post, a new government guideline...) and have certainty about something can feel like a never ending weight on our shoulders and minds. But allowing space to process our thoughts and sit in uncertainty a little longer has been strongly identified as a feature of resilience. It’s ok to say “I’ll think about that,” or “I’ll get back to you on that next week.” This allows us more time to listen to each other with care and curiosity. 

3. Space to make mistakes

Grind culture demands that we push for results. It makes us believe that the creative pool is finite and that we have to “get it right” first time or we’ve failed. In reality, ‘failure’ breeds creativity. In organisations where ideas and creative thinking are rewarded and there is space to ‘fail,’ innovation is nurtured. When we normalise mistake making, we invest in the culture of our workplaces and in our own creativity. 

4. Space to “let the work breathe”

We can feel like we’re not “doing it right” when inspiration is lacking, when we’re not constantly producing. But creativity is not linear. It is disjointed, erratic and without a predictable pattern. We have been experimenting with “letting the work breathe” (Grace Marshall). Not pushing for inspiration at a dry desk but pushing our little girl on the swing for a few minutes without feeling guilty. Not sending work to a client as soon as it’s done but sometimes sleeping on it and coming to it again the next day or so after some space. 

5. Space we purposefully don’t fill

Living through a pandemic is exhausting. Our default response to a crisis can be to feel useful and productive so that we don’t feel helpless. But an adrenaline fuelled response is not sustainable in the long-term. How could you infuse little moments of space into your day? Space where the goal is not about productivity (space to play or to daydream, space where we don’t automatically reach for our phones or computer mouse, a few more minutes of space between scheduled meetings? Do you have any annual leave planned?). I’m trying to hold space for a bit of free thought when I wake up in the morning, rather than rushing to check my phone. What small space-creating steps could you experiment with this week?

6. Space for others

Sometimes space might look like asking ourselves “am I the one who needs to do this? Why am I doing this?” If it’s an opportunity or new project, do I need to be moving over to make space for someone else? If it’s a collection of people making decisions, does that group include/centre the people those decisions will affect most? 

A common thread around making space seems to be giving ourselves permission to let something evolve. Suspending our expectations and sense of control. Listening. Holding certainty lightly. Being open to laying down the need to prove ourselves by our productivity. 

What might creating space look like for you this week?


Grace Marshall: (from her upcoming book) Struggle,

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