The Third Space

One of our readers, an attorney who also holds a senior management role in her firm, sent us the following e-mail to start the new year:

“I was inspired when I read the ‘Big Rocks’ parable in your December newsletter ( But then when I read it again right after the holidays, I realized that the big rocks I had intended to get into my jar in 2012 are still outside the jar as I start 2013.  The sand and gravel just keep piling up, and I’m at my wit’s end. I have great ideas but I’m not able to execute. HOW can I do better?!”

That lament is a common one for almost all executives. None of us ever seems to have enough time to focus on what we want and need to do. As we mature and take on more responsibility in our personal and professional lives, everything gets more chaotic and we sometimes have trouble prioritizing and executing.

One way to maintain focus and improve execution is to be more mindful of what our colleague Mark Nevins calls “The Third Space.” In simple terms, the idea refers to a calm and composed state of mind where you can catch your breath, focus, and lay out a plan to ensure that you are focusing your time and energy on the right things and in the right ways.

This idea comes originally from sociology and urban planning. In the 1980’s, Ray Oldenburg coined the term “The Third Place” to describe areas other than the home or the workplace that foster social interaction and creative dialogue. Third Places can be cafes or pubs, playgrounds (for parents and nannies as well as kids), public sitting areas in malls or lobbies, and barbershops or beauty salons. Think of your local Starbucks or Panera, or a bustling public park. City officials work hard to create productive Third Places, and it’s easy to distinguish the successful ones (full of people talking, playing games, reading, or just thinking and people-watching) from the ones that aren’t (empty and lacking energy and interaction). As social lives increasingly move online, Third Places may be virtual rather than physical: role-playing games, Facebook, Google Groups, Tumblr, and so on.

Based on the Third Place concept, Nevins suggests that executives and leaders adopt the idea of a “Third Space.” The First Space is your personal life, and should be the most important one, spent with family and friends, pursuing leisure, avocations, and hobbies. The Second Space is where many of us spend the majority of our conscious time: work. Of course, work these days doesn’t always take place in the office. In the 21st Century, most of us are deeply absorbed in our work all the time and wherever we are: on an airplane, while commuting, or all too often (admit it) when we are supposed to be focused on family and friends, in the First Space.

We spend nearly every waking hour deeply engrossed in the First Space or the Second Space. “Successful” people, we are told, are those who best achieve “work-life balance.” They seem to toggle effortlessly back and forth between the First and Second Spaces, and they are held up as role models who can do it all in both Spaces. Less “successful” are those who decide to prioritize one of the Spaces. They commit to their families or personal lives, and in doing so trade off career advancement. Or they rapidly progress in their careers, but by neglecting their most important personal relationships and pleasures.

Maybe there is another way. Rather than figuring out how to squeeze every drop of efficiency out of the First and Second Spaces, how about creating a “Third Space,” much like that Third Place in communities. The Third Space is a place, physical or just mental, where you can go to in order to stop, catch your breath, take stock, think and reflect, see things more clearly, and, most important, figure out how to be more successful and productive in both your First and Second Spaces. Being an effective executive takes a great deal of effort and planning, and being good parent, spouse, or friend takes even more. How can you hope to do well in either Space if you never make time to assess, plan, learn, and refresh?

How to create and occupy that Third Space will be a matter of preference and style, but remember that the Third Space is less about a physical place and more about creating mental time and focus. It can also be about using that time to think carefully about your “big rocks,” how you are doing, and what you can and should do differently or better.

Here are a few tips for creating a Third Space:
- Set aside real Third Space time. Put it on your calendar, and treat it like an important meeting. Don’t keep pushing it off until later, or let other meetings displace it.
- Exercising is important for your physical and mental health, and it’s great Third Space time too. Use the time you spend in exercise to sharpen your mental focus rather than just watching the TV. Put a small notebook in your gym bag or next to the treadmill so you can capture thoughts when they come to you.
- Travel time lends itself perfectly to the Third Space. Travel is a “liminal” state when you’re literally between places and commitments, so use airplane or train time for your Third Space. Granted, flying is a pretty miserable experience these days, but at least nobody can reach you to disturb you. Get a pair of noise-cancelling headphones and use the time for you, not for work or killing time with the stranger beside you.
- Make some quiet Third Space time late Sunday evening, when the family is asleep, or early Monday morning, before the chaos of the week begins. Reward yourself with a glass of good wine or a cafй latte. (We don’t recommend wine for Monday morning.)
- Learn to be smarter about those rare half-hours on your calendar where nothing is scheduled. Turn them into Third Space blocks for yourself; don’t just dive into e-mail or busywork. You may be amazed at how productive you can be. (We remain astonished by an incredibly busy schoolteacher and administrator who, in spite of teaching, management, and dealing with students and parents, somehow reads a book or two every week. Her secret? She uses “wasted minutes” for reading, including in line at the grocery store and while waiting for the bus or the ski lift.)

Bringing some kind of Third Space into your regular routine will help you be more productive, effective, and happy. In the Third Space you can organize and plan for your family as well as your job. You can learn from what you have done, both wins and failures, and come up with new ideas. You will recuperate, re-energize, and better manage stress. You’ll feel more in control, and will do a better job focusing yourself on what’s most important.

We’d love to hear your Third Space ideas and experiences. Send us a note:

What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson