Midway through college, I learned I had to take a visual arts class to meet a requirement. This made me nervous as an engineering student mainly used to math and technical classes. It was way outside my comfort zone. But I summoned the courage, held my breath, and did it.
And I’m so glad it did. That class challenged me in several new ways. In that room, I learned, among other things:
- How much typography matters and how to use it effectively
- What it means to have a “language with duct tape”
- How to make cold brew coffee and what makes it so special
That last one didn’t actually have anything to do with the class, but I’m glad I learned it anyway.
But more crucially than any of these (even the coffee), I learned about the importance of negative space. Of the worlds in between. I learned how valuable negative space can be, not just to a photo or a painting, but way beyond that and into everyday life.
What is Negative Space?
In terms of art, negative space refers to the areas between the main visual elements of a piece. But it’s much more than just an image’s “blank” or “empty” parts. Negative space often tells a story of its own. An artist can use it intentionally to add contrast and dimensionality to their work.
I like to think of it like a brick wall. The bricks themselves demand visual attention. But the mortar between the bricks is no less important to the wall. It is the two together that create both beauty and strength.
Life works much the same way.
There are the prominent elements that draw our attention. These are the most immediately visible pieces — the major wins and crushing defeats. All the things we need to get done, want to get done and wish we could be doing instead.
And in between it all is our own negative space.
Why We All Need Negative Space in Life
The negative space in a photo, a painting, or a sculpture, helps to tell its story. When used well, the areas that aren’t filled can be just as impactful as the spaces that are.
The same is true for you and your life. Between work, family life, social events, chores, and projects, there has to be some room for you to just be. It helps you to stay healthy and sane.
A brick wall with no mortar is just a pile of bricks. A light breeze could topple it. Well, like, a medium breeze, anyway. But if it’s going to endure, it needs both bricks and mortar. Positive and negative space.
If your life constantly runs at 110%, as many of ours are, you’re on the express path to burnout. You’re like a large pile of bricks: impressive but ready to topple over all the same.
Life needs negative space.
Restful moments, days with no plans, time to think, breathe, and process. Creating space like these pays you back in many ways, from building up your energy to giving you new perspectives and ideas to helping you heal.
6 Examples of Negative Space in Everyday Life
1. A Walk
Most of us walk a fair amount every day. But do you ever walk just to walk? Not to get anywhere, not with a phone in hand or buds in ears, not just because the dog needs it. Just movement and presence.
“An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day”Henry David Thoreau
A peaceful walk gets your blood moving and thoughts circulating. It’s a great way to slow down and process whatever’s going on in your head right now. Plus, if you have a park or woods nearby, a growing body of research points to a wide variety of psychological benefits of walking in nature.
2. Intentional Transitions
This is an especially helpful tip for anyone who works from home. Still, transitions are an excellent tool for anyone with a busy life. In fact, the more full your life is with commitments, projects, and obligations, the more critical it is to create boundaries between them.
An intentional transition can be very simple, something like:
- A “wind-down” routine after a recurring activity
- Taking three deep breaths in between two tasks
- A mantra to the effect of “That’s done now, what comes next?”
When you’re extremely busy, your day tends to flow seamlessly from one urgent task or focus to another and back again. But sometimes, seams are good, like how they hold our pants together.
Hold your metaphorical pants together by adding intentional transitions into your day. Transitions that let you say, “Okay, I’m done with that thing, and I’m putting it down; now I’m shifting my focus into this.”
Okay, this one has been absolutely HUGE for me, and if you’ve never tried it, I highly recommend you give it a shot. The “how” is quite simple: sit somewhere comfortable for a set amount of time, and think. 20 minutes is an excellent place to start; less is fine too.
That’s it. Let your mind wander and see what happens.
Mind you, this is not exactly meditation, per se (though that is a great technique we’ll talk about too). Welcome your thoughts, explore them, and see where they lead. Until you’ve tried this for yourself, it’s hard to understand how impactful it can be. It’s often amazing the number and significance of solutions, new ideas, and beautiful thoughts that flow into your mind when you create negative space for them.
4. Enjoying a Nice Bench
My wife and I have this saying, “There’s always a bench.”
Practically anywhere you go, chances are good there’ll be a bench to sit on.
Benches are great when you need a moment to rest or wait for something, but they also offer an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to pause, reflect, and take in your surroundings.
Next time you spot a good bench, give it a go! Enjoy the view if there is one, observe the people passing by, check in with how you’re feeling and decide what you will do next.
5. Unstructured Downtime
Most forms of negative space in life come down to some form of rest or self-care. Rest heals us, makes us feel better, and allows us to keep showing up with our full selves. In addition, it makes the “positive space” parts of life more fun and exciting.
Make sure there’s room in life for rest without any specific agenda. Not just a social gathering or a planned family trip. Those are great, but we can also gain a great deal from an afternoon off or a simple, peaceful day at home.
Take that time for yourself. You don’t just deserve it; you need it.
6. Mindfulness, Meditation, and Breathing
We can hardly talk about negative space in life without a thoughtful nod to mindfulness. Mindful practice is an excellent and time-tested way to step back and slow down.
Through breathing exercises, meditation, and other ways of engaging with mindfulness, we can all learn to better detach from the bustle around us and enjoy the negative space of the moment.
What Does Negative Space in Your Life Look Like?
Just as every beautiful work of art needs negative space between subjects, your life needs negative space between the big pieces. Of course, rest is a big part of it, but it runs deeper than rest.
The moments in between are a deep well for understanding, clarity, creativity, and emotional processing.
Simple acts of negative space, sprinkled throughout your day, can give you back far more than the few minutes they take.