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How to Boost Your Cognitive Ability

Hint: Take a minute to think.

Key points

  • "White space" paves the way for moments of thought that lead to better business solutions.
  • White space involves taking time to pause. It does not have to be a specific length, and unlike meditation, does not have to be empty.
  • Learning proper smartphone usage can increase one's ability to think as smartphones give people a false sense of urgency.

Rarely have I wept while reading a business book. In fact, I cannot recall an occasion when I have. But the moment I picked up Juliet Funt’s A Minute to Think: Reclaim Creativity, Conquer Busyness, and Do Your Best Work, I had a visceral response – one of joy that I had found a soulmate I have never met, someone who values the power of pause as I do.

Research reveals that taking breaks throughout your workday amplifies your creative power. Allowing for what Funt calls “white space” paves the way for moments of thought that lead to better business solutions. Much like the Japanese term “ma” I referenced in The Power of Slow, when we take time for the space between things, we provide ourselves with opportunities to shift our thinking. Funt defines white space as time with no assignment, an open, fluid occasion of unscheduled minutes.

Common Misconceptions About White Space

In a delightful phone chat, she revealed three common misconceptions she faces when teaching the notion of white space to her clients whom she advises with tough love and savvy training to improve their overall performance.

Misconception #1: It is only a time for rest. Recuperation is indeed massively needed, but white space also provides doorways into creativity, gaining objectivity, actual innovation. It is the place to create and hatch ideas. Anyone who has experienced a lightbulb moment while taking a shower understands the power white space can have.

Misconception #2: It has to be a specific length. But even mini-timeouts of 30 seconds here or five minutes there, laced through the day, are the most effective way to calibrate a powerful rhythm between doing and thinking.

Misconception #3: White space remains empty. It is not a meditation practice, but rather a moment to defragment your internal hard drive in order for things to show up.

Thieves of Time and Their Remedies

Funt identifies four core areas and corresponding questions to address thieves of time. Two thieves are about motion: drive (risk of overdrive) and activity (risk of frenzy). The second set is about stagnancy: excellence (risk of perfectionism) and information (risk of overload). Remedies for each involve asking ourselves:

Drive: Is there anything I can let go of?

Activity: What deserves my attention?

Excellence: Where is "good enough" good enough?

Information: What do I truly need to know?

Juliet Funt, used with permission.
Source: Juliet Funt, used with permission.

When asked routinely, these questions can stave off the thieves of time. One particular challenge she poses is to spend one single minute doing absolutely nothing without an agenda. For speedaholics (and recovering ones such as myself), it can be a humbling experience. And very uncomfortable. While being purpose-driven is a noble pursuit, Funt encourages readers to recognize comparing ourselves to others on social media and elsewhere as senseless. And, in my view, a copious waste of time.

Two other concepts that resonated were “hallucinated urgency” and “phone narration”. A study from McComb School of Business showed that your smartphone’s presence, even when turned off, reduces your cognitive capacity. Yet we constantly check into our virtual persona to see what we may have missed, thereby upping the ante of urgency we feel. It is truly exhausting.

While it is clear that smartphone usage is a skill we must manage, Funt suggests telling people standing in front of you (perhaps agape and feeling ignored) what you are checking as you do it. It not only keeps you engaged with the person(s) in the room, but it can also prevent you from going down digital rabbit holes as you get distracted by notifications irrelevant to your original intention. One of her most memorable passages made me laugh out loud:

“I think if the devil wanted to destroy us, he would not choose to level the human race in a single fiery breath. There is no poetry or sport in that. I think he’d savor our demise by creating some thing so sexy, tantalizing, hypnotizing, and alluring that slowly we would all stop talking to each other and crumble as a society from the death of intimacy. I’m pretty sure that thing is my iPhone.”

While reading her book, I left my phone in another building. It felt both liberating and slightly nauseating, a bit like detoxifying after a holiday season of heavy eating. Nonetheless, her lessons have stuck. As I rediscipline my day toward conscious, mindful practices, I have been amazed at how much more time I have now than before.

A Minute to Think gives us permission to pause while showing us through Funt’s brilliantly crafted narrative that the sky will not fall if we take a moment. And surely, as our creative juices continue to flow onto the canvas of white space, the devil will be kept at bay too.

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