Don’t Let Space Be Alien in Your Life

November 18, 2009

For Monday, November 16, 2009

Written on Amtrak; posted in Cincinnati in the middle of the night in an empty train station

I sit on the train and watch the snow-covered mountains go past. It’s morning in Montana. We’re close to the Continental Divide and to Glacier National Park, and it is beautiful. I am doing nothing. Well, not exactly nothing. I’m writing about doing nothing, so I suppose that’s something, but what I’m not doing is anything I should be doing.

I have so much work to do, a bag filled with neatly labeled file folders and carefully organized things to work on. There’s a list on the first of the alphabetically-arranged folders lest I forget something. I should do some of it. I have books to read too—suitcase pockets full of them since I fear running out. I’m afraid I couldn’t afford a Kindle bill, so I travel with paperbacks, leaving them behind me, a slow trail marking here to there and back again. I finished one last night and left it with a note so that the finder will know it’s there for the taking.

Here’s my problem: I don’t want to do anything. I want to just watch this unfamiliar world go by, knowing that it’s not my world, that there is nothing in it that I have to do. And I wonder if this happens to you. It’s what I like about camping too—a world without boundaries, no edges of deadline hemming me in. No internet access. No phone service. No bars. No bars. No bars. Space.

In his book, Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busy Work, and the Myth of Total Efficiency, Thomas DeMarco (2001) uses the Fifteen Puzzle—that little plastic square filled with fifteen sliding numbers you have to get into numerical order—as a visual to explain the need for what he calls slack in your life. This puzzle is an inefficient use of space, DeMarco notes. It is not completely filled, and yet if all the space is used, you cannot move. There is no room to rearrange the pieces.

I know that I should not fill every space in my life, but when I can, the temptation is great to pack each moment with more than it should hold. There is too much to be done, too many things that it feels like I have to do or need to do and far too many that I long to do, and I live constantly in the tension of all these competing demands. Today, the mountains remind me that when it comes to doing, sometimes nothing can be exactly right.

What do you need to or want to make space for? 

The wonder of the world, the beauty, and the power, the shapes of things, their colors, lights and shades, these I saw. Look ye also while life lasts.

• Gravestone inscription, Cumberland, England




  1. Dr Z,

    Filling space in my life is one of the most essential components of keeping my sanity in check. I am natural at being a workaholic. I don’t like to sit idle for too long. I consider myself to be a focused and on-task person. When I was in my brief career as a computer programmer, I found this wonderful place. The industry jokingly calls it “nerdvana”.

    This is the place where all computer programmers go when they are up till 6am working on a program that was started at 6pm the previous evening. I fell into this state way to many times and found that my life was passing me by. I realized that this is an unhealthy way of filling my time. Even though I have a wonderful passion for programming it can take me into nerdvana and I don’t even realize that I have crossed into that zone.

    I have since stopped programming and found out that I can do other healthy things to fill in the spaces of my life. Lately, school has become a little overwhelming and I have had difficulty maintaining some of my healthier habits. Trying to balance life and work has always been difficult for me as an individual.

    If I force myself to put the lap-top down and make an effort to get out of the house and go to the gym, I feel the relief wash over me. Tango is also an extremely important component in my life. I get to dance 2-3 hours a week sometimes and I am smiling the entire time. Not many people can say that they got to smile for 3 hours straight!

    I believe that if we all find that place in ourselves where we are smiling, we have found that healthy environment.


    Nathan T Clinton

  2. Oh, how I love nerdvana. I suspect that absent-minded professors (my husband calls me “Flubber” in a lame Disney reference to AMPs) go there too. I often find myself falling into the state you describe. I like to think of it as creative flow, but nerdvana is more descriptive of the bliss of immersion. W-OZ

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