"You Don't Have to" Series, Minimalism, Reducing Stress

You Don’t Have to: Fill All the Little Life Spaces

Today we’re going to talk about space. Not all that crazy, incomprehensible black stuff out there in the cosmos, but the space right there. And there, and that little space just in the corner over there.

Take a close look. Do you notice something about them? I do: they’re most always full.

We homo sapiens seem generally uncomfortable with empty spaces. And it goes beyond physical spaces: we tend to perfectly use up time-space too (whoa there, Steven Hawking). We fill our financial space, and we don’t even like empty space when we speak, we fill it with ‘umm’s and ‘uhh’s. Or those short times of empty space in our heads, like waiting in line for your lunch, or sitting at a red light, we rush to fill it with digital input from our pocket-computers.

Why do we do this? For what reason does discomfort manifest when we see an empty shelf, an unused corner, or hear a long silence on the radio? Let’s dive in to a few of these first.

1. Physical Space

When was the last time you went to someone’s house and there was just an empty room? “Oh we didn’t need that room, so we left it empty” said no one ever.

(Note to academia for psychological experiment idea: secretly place an empty shelf in people’s homes and record how quickly it fills with travel trinkets and Homesense paraphernalia.)

And speaking from personal experience, I can’t even count on two hands how many times I’ve moved: I’ve lived in 5-bedroom houses, I’ve shared a kitchen and bathroom with 30 others in a University dorm, and I’ve most recently squeezed in to a cozy little condo my wife and dog.

And what happened each time? With the bigger place I accumulated a bunch more stuff. And when we downsized, it was a full-time Craigslist sell-a-thon.

I swear ours has never been this bad.

It’s truly amazing how quickly you adapt to the space you’re given. Another example: Andrea and I shared a tiny beer fridge for about 3 years. It was totally fine, we just changed our habits to buy smaller amounts more often.

A full-size fridge seemed ridiculously unnecessary, nearing on absurdity.  But then we moved to our condo, and all of a sudden we had a massive LG refrigeration behemoth to ourselves!

Within a couple months there were more condiments, more Costco XL products, and more scary containers lost in the back-of-the-fridge Twilight Zone. It was of course full.

2. Time Space

We live in the age of productivity apps, ‘life-changing’ and ‘time-saving’ products, and ultra high-speed workstations, all with the intent of giving us more free time. But regardless of saved time, we just fill it up with other activities and to-do’s. We of course pride ourselves in our busy-ness; we’re proclaiming to the world that we’re being productive, and not ‘wasting’ time. Pff, only lazy folks keep free space in their schedules!

– Thinking back to college, when the prof gave me 2 months to finish that paper, I’d usually take the two months, cramming in the final touches at 2am.

– Or maybe you read an article that says it takes 3 years to learn guitar or to speak German, so you mentally plan for it to take you that long

– Or a friend last-minute changes your dinner reservation from 7pm to 7:30pm, and you’re still late

– Even Malcolm Gladwell told us that it takes roughly 10,000 hours to master a skill or profession.

When we hear these sort of timelines, you may to some extent pace your learning and mentally accelerate or restrain your learning speed to fit that timeline; even if you don’t realize it.

But it doesn’t have to work like that. I read an article that Ryan Gosling learned to play jazz piano in 3 months for the movie La La Land. Or Benny Lewis the polyglot who says it’s completely possible to become fluent in a language in 3 months, even if you claim you’re ‘no good at languages.’

3. Financial Space

Every so often I read hard-to-believe articles about NFL superstars or lottery winners who mere years later, possess empty bank accounts. How is that possible!? By now you can probably see where I’m going with this. What do we do when we get a raise? Our spending habits increase proportionally. By creating that buffer between spending and savings, we naturally want to fill that gap.

We typically structure our savings habits to retire at the (what seems to me to be an arbitrarily determined) age of 65. But blogs like Mr. Money Mustache have blown people’s minds with the insanely simple fact that if you just adjust that timeline and structure your saving habits accordingly, you can retire at 40!

Personally, I think it borders on frightening how enormously shocking such a straight-forward concept of ‘save more money and you can retire much earlier’ is to the general public.

My two cents (read: attempt at imparting some profound wisdom): I think this is an unconscious act we perform on a daily basis. Life provides us a given amount of space and by not filling it, we deem it a lost opportunity, or wasted time. So we feel some psychological panic response.

But if a space is full, whether it’s in your house, your mind or in your bank account, there’s no hope for creativity or opportunity. It’s full and that’s it. But by recognizing the emptiness in spaces, and letting them remain empty, it provides a sense of possibility, resilience and leaves room to grow.

Cheryl Moreau says blank spaces give us freedom:

“Don’t see the emptiness in your blank spaces, see the possibilities”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top