Finding your Third Space

Mental health

Finding your third space

Published April 2017
Health Agenda magazine

Struggling to achieve work-life balance? The Third Space may be the answer.

Do you feel you’re constantly moving between different roles and environments requiring you to be different things to different people? In the space of a day you might be a parent, employee or manager, partner, friend, pet owner and more besides. Sometimes moving between these roles comes fairly naturally; at others not so much.

“In our research we looked at the transition between work and home, and we discovered that most people struggle to be that adaptable; they tend to bring a bad day home with them,” says Dr Adam Fraser, author of The Third Space. “People who have really good work-life balance, however, have the ability to leave the frustrations of the day behind them.”

That elusive ability is what we’re all aiming for – and Dr Fraser found the key to achieving it in an unlikely place: the world of elite sports. “When we were looking at high-performance sportspeople we saw this common theme: the ability to transition from one thing to another really effectively,” he explains.

“Elite tennis players have the ability to lose a point but get their head right for the next point. In the same way, a great leader can have a setback but then move on to the next thing without taking it with them.”

He calls this gap – between what’s just happened and what you need to do next – the Third Space. Further examination of elite sportspeople showed that there are three distinct phases to the Third Space, Dr Fraser says.  

How to find your Third Space

Step 1: reflect

“The first stage is ‘reflect’ – to look back on what you’ve been through but in a healthy way,” he explains. “So if you’ve had a setback, you interpret it in a healthy way rather than by beating yourself up.”

Ask yourself: what went well in the day? What did I achieve? How did I improve? You’ll notice the questions are all skewed towards the positive and that’s for good reason.

“Answering these three questions delivers a burst of happiness and puts people in an optimistic mindset, by helping them to focus on progress rather than looking at what they didn’t do,” says Dr Fraser.

Step 2: rest

Phase two is ‘rest’ – the ability to come back to the present moment, to be mindful. This phase is critical.

“Between points, elite tennis players relax more. Their heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormones drop, whereas the lower-ranked players stay agitated. That doesn’t make a difference over a game but it makes a massive difference over five sets,” explains Dr Fraser.

It’s not hard to draw comparisons to life here – while we can kid ourselves that little injections of stress keep us sharp, in the long term they lead to burnout.

Being more mindful is key. “That ability to be in the moment is absolutely critical – it calms anxiety, gets you more focused and puts you in a state of flow,” Dr Fraser says. “It’s a really personal thing. Some people do sudoku, some do meditation or read a book, exercise, listen to a podcast or music – it just needs to be something that helps you feel still and present.”

Step 3: reset

“Say you’re moving from one meeting to another: resetting is knowing what you need to bring to the new meeting to get the most from it.”

“When you’re transitioning home ask yourself, ‘How do I want to show up?’ ‘What impact do I want to have?’ Because how you show up determines what sort of evening you have, even if you live alone.”

Does it work?

Happily, yes. “We spent three years asking 600 senior business people and small-business owners to practise these steps,” says Dr Fraser. “We measured mood in the home and found a 41% improvement after just one month.” So if you want to be the Serena Williams or Roger Federer of family time, you know what to do…

The most popular Third Space choices

Your commute

“The Third Space can be anything: your drive home, bus ride, ferry ride, going to the gym…” Dr Fraser says. During your commute try listening to music or an audiobook, doing a visualisation, or building in some exercise. Set off 10 minutes earlier each day to give yourself time for a quick walk to the next bus stop.

Research from 2010 published in Stroke, a journal of the American Heart and Stroke associations, found that walking for two hours a week reduced the risk of stroke by 30%. That breaks down to just two 9-minute walks a day.

At a café

Making a café your Third Space can be surprisingly effective. “Socialising can be a good way of relaxing for many people,” Dr Fraser says. But hide your smartphone.

Research published in 2014 by the Environmental Design Research Association found the sense of closeness and connection you feel to a partner or loved one while socialising with them is impaired by the mere presence of a smartphone in your immediate environment. It also lowers the quality of your face-to-face conversations, even if you don’t actually use it.


Dr Fraser spends an hour a day walking his dog after work as his Third Space. By going for a walk or run outdoors you won’t just clear your head – you’ll boost your mood too.

A 2016 study by the University of Queensland and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions showed that people who visit parks for 30 minutes or more each week are much less likely to have high blood pressure or poor mental health than those who don’t. The authors also found that those who visited parks more frequently experienced greater social cohesion.


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