Midway through college I found out I had to take a 2D art class to meet a requirement. As an engineering student taking mainly math and technical classes, this made me nervous. 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 a number of 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 in between the main visual elements of a piece. But it’s more than just the “blank” or “empty” part of an image. 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 in 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 big elements that draw our attention. There are the big 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, or a painting, or a sculpture, helps to tell its story. When used well, the spaces that aren’t filled can be just as impactful as the spaces that are.
The same is true for you, and your life. In 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 is always running at 110%, as so 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, to breathe, and to process. Creating space like this pays you back in many ways, from building up your energy, to giving you new perspective and ideas, to helping you heal.
6 Examples of Negative Space in Everyday Life
1. A Walk
We all walk plenty (well alright, we walk *some*) everyday. 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, but transitions are a great tool for anyone with a busy life. In fact, the more full your life is with commitments, projects, and obligations, the more important 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 a good thing, like how they hold my 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 a good 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 on this list as well). Welcome your thoughts, explore them, see where they lead. Until you’ve tried this for yourself, it’s hard to understand the number and significance of solutions, new ideas, and beautiful thoughts that flow into your mind when you create the 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’re going to 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. It makes the “positive space” parts of life more fun and exciting.
Make sure there’s room in life for rest that doesn’t have 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, great 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 have a conversation 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 exercise, 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 in between subjects, your life needs negative space in between the big pieces. Rest is a big part of it, but it runs a lot 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.
What does the negative space in your life look like? Are you getting enough of it? Where would you like to add more of it? Share below!