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Breathing Room

Designing Space Into Our Lives

Like silence in music, negative space in art, or margins on a page, we need breathing room in our lives.

We work hard and get things done. We have big goals and high expectations. We are told to step outside our comfort zones.

We want more, but when there's too much we can feel smothered. We want faster, but when we go too fast we find ourselves out of breath.

We need breathing room.

Substance in Silence

Silence is the breathing room of music. Measures of silence are not waiting periods but rather moments of active listening and anticipation. It can raise our expectations for what's to come.

Music can become muddy, and at a certain point it just becomes noise. Utilizing silence is a key skill for any musician to reduce clutter or add emphasis to other instruments. However, silence is not intuitive and we are all familiar with the feeling of awkward silence.

In music and our lives, there is substance in silence. We shouldn't fill silence with sound just to fill it. We shouldn't do more just to fill the time. We shouldn't talk more, but listen. We shouldn't worry more, but breathe.

We shouldn't endlessly want more, because at a certain point the music becomes noise.

Beauty in Balance

Negative space is the breathing room of art and design. It gives the eye a place to rest. It can draw attention to the main subject, or sometimes form an interesting shape and becomes the subject.

The artist considers and improves the balance between negative space and positive space in a composition to enhance the design.

In art and in our lives, there is beauty in balance. Work hard and recharge. Routine and adventure. Discipline and freedom. Speak and listen. Togetherness and solitude.

Life is art, and lifestyle is the beauty in the balance.

An Emptiness Full of Possibilities

The Japanese have a concept called ma. There is no exact Western translation, but it can be described as a pause in time, an interval or emptiness in space. Ma is the time and space we need to grow. If we have no time, if our space is restricted, we cannot grow.

It takes breathing room to grow.

In Japan, shrines are often built at the end of long uphill hikes; the long and tiring walk prepares the mind to enter the shrine and leave behind other distractions and worries. Cities are scattered with small parks that appear suddenly and offer winding trails for quiet reflection. Even conversations in Japanese are marked by long pauses that would be unsettling for Western ears.

In our lives, ma can be meditation or quiet time after a long day. It can be no technology at certain times or in certain rooms. It can be taking your time to make an important decision, "sleeping on it" and not rushing it. It can be creating distance to allow differences to be reconciled, whether that's a few moments before responding in a heated argument, or some time spent apart.

Of course there is no Western translation for ma.

Cut Yourself Some Slack

In statistics, margin of error is an amount (usually small) that is allowed for in case of miscalculation or change of circumstances.

In engineering, redundancy is the inclusion of extra components which are not strictly necessary to functioning, in case of failure in other components.

Extra slack is a good thing, it builds in resilience. When something is wound too tightly, it snaps. We want some flexibility, adaptability. We want some breathing room.

But business teaches us to eliminate slack in order to maximize profit. We often sacrifice resilience for efficiency.

Resilience is the ability to recover from difficulties—to spring back into shape after a shock. Resilient systems are typically characterized by the very features—diversity. redundancy, slack—that efficiency seeks to destroy.

More profit margin or more error margin? Just-in-time or just-in-case? Unlimited growth or limit scale? Focus or diversify? Move fast and break things or introduce friction? Short-term gain or long-term thinking?

We see this with Covid-19. PPE quickly ran out, hospital beds and ICUs are in short supply, mass layoffs and limited cash runway. Of course this crisis was unexpected, but that's the point.

How much of our lives are lived "just-in-time," the slightest bit of unexpected traffic causing us to stressfully weave in and out of lanes? How many days are we rushing from one meeting to the next, one meeting running long and messing up the rest of the day? How many people live unnecessarily paycheck-to-paycheck, upgrading their lifestyle instead of saving for a rainy day?

Breathing room is a buffer, defending against stress, anxiety, and the shit that life throws at us.

Breathing Room in Our Lives

Life is made up of moments, small pieces of glittering mica in a long stretch of gray cement. It would be wonderful if they came to us unsummoned, but particularly in lives as busy as the ones most of us lead now, that won't happen. We have to teach ourselves how to make room for them, to love them, and to live, to really live.​

~Anna Quindlen, A Short Guide to a Happy Life

Designing breathing room into our lives leads to peace of mind and resilience. It increases our awareness, allows us to notice more of the good things.

Breathing room in our schedules is not being in a hurry, not rushing things. It's discipline, not procrastinating or waiting till the last minute. It's leaving early, planning flex time, enjoying downtime. It's waking up to no alarm. It's freedom to surf when the waves are good. It's chopping parsley at 3pm on a Tuesday. It's leaving weekends open to be able to say yes to spontaneous invitations. It's having boundaries, saying no to what doesn't matter so we can say yes to what does.

Breathing room in our wallets is having an emergency fund, at least 6 months cash runway for when shit hits the fan. It's having insurance. It's setting up a diversified income stream, a diversified investment portfolio. It's being in control of our spending, knowing the numbers and being deliberate. It's not committing to the mortgage that's a little bit out of our budget. It's being unpersuadable by marketers and advertisers, and not trying to keep up with the Joneses. It's having a high savings rate and saving for retirement. It's investing, not day-trading, with index funds, dollar-cost averaging and automated transfers.

Breathing room in our spaces comes from cleanliness and organization in our homes, our cars, our workspaces. It's having a clean and organized desk and desktop. It's no notifications on our phones and unsubscribing from emails. It's clean counters and an organized pantry. It's all the things where they are supposed to be, nothing in the way. It's cleaning out the closet, taking out the trash. It's literally and metaphorically clearing the clutter from life’s path so we can make room for the most important aspects of life.

Breathing room in our relationships is giving space and getting space when it's needed. It's opening up our hearts. It's allowing others to be themselves, and being our true selves. It's being open and accepting, rather than controlling or wanting someone to change who they are. It's listening and being non-judgmental, which creates space for honesty and open communication. It's being honest, which creates space for trust and security. It's having reasonable expectations of others, giving them the space and time to learn and grow. It's pausing before responding in a heated argument. It's forgiveness.

Breathing room in our minds comes from breathing room in the 4 areas above. It's optimizing for sleeping at night. It's not overcommitting. It's achievable goals and long-term thinking. It's planning for emergencies, considering worst-case scenarios. It's using mindfulness, meditation, exercise or other tools to clear our heads. It's trying not to be consumed by negative emotions, like anger, jealousy, guilt, so there is more space for positive emotions. It's letting go of what is no longer serving us. It's having a beginner's mind, breathing deeply before action, "sleeping on" important decisions, closing our eyes and visualizing success before it happens, savoring experiences, learning through reflection, and practicing gratitude.

Breathing room creates comfortability. It builds security and stability, which can serve as a launchpad to stepping outside our comfort zones. Being secure and stable in some areas of our lives can enable risk-taking or allow us to handle uncertainty in other areas of our lives.

Breathing room is a luxury.

It's freedom.

It's a privilege. For the privileged, it's a choice.

Where do you need more breathing room in your life?

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