Use Mindless Work to Improve Your Output

Clear blue sky

After Monday’s post, you know you need to take some vacation time and work some breathing room into your life: it’s good for your health and for your relationships. But managing to get a little break time into your schedule is also good for your work. Earlier this month the Harvard Business Review put out an article describing the need for white space—time when you’re not doing any task at all—in your work life. The article explains that giving yourself some breathing room allows you to gain better perspectives on your work so you can do a better job. Giving your mind “fresh air” helps it function at its best. In response to this article, Gini Dietrich explained how she gradually claimed Friday as her white space day.

White space is a beautiful idea: your mind gets time to breathe, you regain your footing, and you can reassess the direction you’re taking. However, you can’t necessarily incorporate white space into every day and still keep sane business hours. But you should still incorporate moments of mental rest into your workday. Full breaks at lunch (instead of eating at your desk) are a great start, but another way to give your frantic mind some rest is to alternate between mindful and mindless work.

Beyond White Space

Mindful work is the sort of work you that requires you to be actively engaged at all times. Intense problem solving and creative projects fall into this category, as do some customer support issues. It’s the exciting work you’re motivated to do—until it drags on for too long, of course. If you’re always doing hyper-creative and intense projects, you’re ripe for the over-stressed, hormone-poisoned state mentioned on Monday. Even though mindful work is what motivates you, you can’t be doing it all the time.

Mindless work, on the other hand, could be called gray space (to follow the HBR’s “white space” term). Its work doesn’t require you to dedicate much thought, but still keeps you from fully focusing on not doing anything. Things like data entry, copy-and-paste efforts, or simple HTML tagging could all qualify as gray space. It’s the sort of tasks that you’re rarely motivated to do because they’re not challenging enough to be interesting—this lack of challenge and interest is why long stretches of gray space aren’t ideal. However, short gray-space breaks mingled in with your mindful work will keep your mind sharper for when it needs to be used for intense problem solving.

Gray space lets you reset your conscious cognition and be ready to attack a new issue. It also keeps you from grinding away at a mindful project until you’ve worn down your will to tackle it. If you alternate between projects—an hour or so of mindfulness, 15–30 minutes of gray space, rinse/wash/repeat—you reap the benefits of having variety in your day. Variety can keep you interested and fresh when it comes to your projects. Gray space essentially gives you the benefits of white space on a smaller scale; its also easier to implement on a day-to-day basis that true, empty white space is. Even a few short stretches of gray-space work can boost your productivity and the quality of your work.

What sort of work can you use as your gray space?

Image by Michelle Meiklejohn via


  1. Aug 3, 2011
    7:20 pm

    Gini Dietrich

    Ohhh! I like the idea of gray space, too! This is what I do in between meetings and phone calls, when I don’t have enough time to start a new project, but don’t want to sit idle (read: Play on Twitter) either. Really great philosophy in how to drive it to work for you.

    • Aug 4, 2011
      12:15 pm

      Kristy Stewart

      I’m glad you like it! Wait a second: Isn’t playing on Twitter part of your job? That hardly counts as being idle.

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