From Gridlock to Grace

Sleepy in Seattle

It was rush hour, but I made great time driving from Bellingham to Seattle anyway. I was ready, oh so ready, to sink into sleep. My hotel was visible from the exit ramp. I allowed myself to feel my weariness and anticipated surrendering to my fatigue after what had been a very long day. My hotel was a short block away.

But it took me 45 minutes, literally, to get there. By then, I was beyond sleepy. I was exhausted in Seattle.

The 65% Standard

I’m sure, like me, you know from experience that too many cars in too small a space lead to gridlock. And, according to Personal Kanban author Jim Benson, the same is true of too many tasks crammed in to too little time.

Jim Benson used to be an urban planner, and he uses freeway flow as a metaphor for work flow. One gem from his book: when a road is more than 65% full, traffic slows. Generally, optimal traffic-flow happens at about 65% of the number of cars the road can physically hold.

In the same way, when you fill your schedule more than 65% full, your flow slows and output decreases.

This principle works for space as well as scheduling. Fill a space more than 65% full, and you lose flow.

Beyond “less is more”

Am I saying “less is more?” That’s true – if you’re overcrowded—as most of us are. But I recommend a concrete standard. For simplicity, my standard is two-thirds. I want my schedule, closets, drawers and life to be two-thirds full. Try it and see if works for you. Go for flow by leaving a third of everything as space for grace.

From: “does it fit?” to “does it flow?”

Stop asking — “does it fit?” Start asking — “does it flow?” For example: when I plan a webinar or training session, (or write an article) I don’t ask if there’s room to fit another point. I ask if another point will flow.

It may seem wasteful to make four points when I could make six —just like it could seem wasteful to block out 90 minutes for a one hour appointment. I was reminded of how this works yesterday in a scheduled meeting with a colleague who hadn’t left space for grace for our discussion. His day didn’t go as smoothly as he had hoped (do they ever?) and he texted a service provider with instructions while talking with us. The intrusion was obvious. The meeting lacked the usual flow and wasted, not just his time, but all of ours.  

The Space for Grace Imperative

Benson’s freeway metaphor illustrates the practical nature of flow and grace. His—and my—experience of increased productivity when we make space for grace confirms it. Here’s how you start.


1. Set your standard. I like a third—but use what works for you. (Note – one size doesn’t fit all. After you get rolling, you can create a standard day by day and drawer by drawer. But it’s useful to start with something concrete.)

2. Go and see. Assess where you are. Mark your overly-scheduled days and areas with red and your grace-spaced schedules and areas with green (stickys are good).

3. Choose your space creation approach. Some possibilities:

A. Create space for grace incrementally
Example: commit to reducing a 90% full closet’s contents by one item a day until a third is space for grace

B. Create space for grace globally
Example: start and keep sorting until you reach your space for grace standard

C. Create space for grace functionally
Example: every time you put something into your overcrowded closet, take out two things

Note: what matters most is momentum.

4. Sort and straighten in zones, with a start, middle and end of each effort—even if you’re doing a global sorting. (In larger projects this gives the motivating experience of completion.)

5. Celebrate each newly created grace space

From Gridlock to Grace

When I moved forward one car-length per light change that weary evening in Seattle, I was in gridlock, not grace. Sometimes our congested calendars and our over-loaded offices are like that. While creating space takes time, congestion and gridlock waste time. Take yourself from “too full to flow” to “space for grace” and watch your productivity soar.


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