It could be just a coincidence, but I don’t think so.
In the course of the last 10 days or so, I’ve had three in-depth conversations with businesspeople (two of them entrepreneurs) that I truly respect. The theme: Carving out more time to think.
All three people–two men and a woman–had been searching for ways to do it.
The three don’t know one another, but why they had this quest in common is easy to understand.
While it is undoubtedly true that superior execution is better than any great idea you can think of, you need new ideas if you are going to stay ahead of the competition. And it is awfully hard to come up with those ideas if you don’t have any time to think.
And so those three people were looking for ways to create “white space” in their lives that they could fill with new ideas.
Let me share with you the things they are trying. Then, I am going to ask you to tell me what works for you. But first, their 11 ideas.
1. Breakfast could be the most important meal of the day. One of the men has taken to getting up earlier and is in his local coffee shop by 5 a.m. He says he always buys a newspaper, “so I won’t look even more weird than I am,” but he spends virtually all of his time just staring into space. “The key, I find, is not to distract myself with things like checking email or voice mail, or making to do lists. I just sit and think.”
The Thinking Man sculpture at Musée Rodin in Paris (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
2. First things first. Intriguingly, the other two people I talked to also tried to carve out thinking time early in the day. But they did it before breakfast. Typically, they said, the first they used to do was check email and skim the headlines. Now, they are putting that off, until they have spent some time thinking about their most important objectives.
3. Simplifying. Stress and needless distractions (“where the heck did I put that file”) detract from your ability to think. Each of the people I talked to said they were taking steps to become even more organized. One of the ideas I particularly liked: Creating an agenda for the following day–with all the necessary supporting materials at hand–before they turned off their computer at night.
4. Reinstating the lunch break. Unless you are meeting with a client, there is a natural tendency to work through lunch; you have a quick sandwich or salad at your desk while tackling yet another thing you have to do. One of the ideas that surfaced was walking away from your desk and finding some place where you could find 30 minutes to get away from everything.
5. Relaxing before taking a break. “I really am one of those guys who gets his best ideas in the shower,” one of the men told me. “But I noticed that the ideas only occur if I am not stressed. If I am worried about something, that’s all I concentrate on in the shower. Now, I try to be stress-free before I step into the tub. It doesn’t guarantee I will get a new idea, but it seems to increase my chances.”
6. Building in a break. Within a five minute drive of her house, one of the entrepreneurs told me, is a upscale gym and a place where “I can grab something healthy to eat. I have made it a point to budget an hour a day to take advantage of both places and I refuse to check email or voice mail during that time.”
7. Fly first class. It used to be people said they used their travel time up in the air to think. But with packed planes and smaller seats that option has become more difficult. One option: Fly first class whenever you can, said one of the men I talked to. “It’s about equivalent to what coach used to be about 30 years ago. I find it helps.”
8. Schedule it. I have my doubts, but one of the people swears by it. He blocks off 15 minutes every day–in the middle of the day–which is labeled “thinking” on his calendar.
9. Shake up your routine. I found this one interesting. One of the reasons people say you are able to generate more ideas in the shower is because the task of showering is so routine. Since you do it by rote, your mind is free to wander. No one I talked to disagreed with that theory, but they said they noticed that that they got more and different ideas when they were doing something out of the ordinary like seeing a movie in the middle of day or taking a break at an unexpected time.
10. In praise of dead cell phones. “I would have never believed this one, if it hadn’t happened to me,” one of the people told me. “I was driving to a client meeting four hours away and my cell phone battery died and I didn’t have a car charger. After about 20 minutes–20 long minutes of panic and withdrawal pain–I came to appreciate the fact that I was not about to be interruptted. I am still not great about turning off my phone for long stretches, but I try.”
11. The old ways still work. I was curious, so I asked about the idea of taking some time off–a long weekend perhaps–where you tried to do nothing but contemplate what’s important. All three endorsed the idea and then promptly said they can’t remember the last time they did no work over three consecutive days.