It might sound funny, but I consider a day I spent doing absolutely nothing as one of my biggest entrepreneurial moments. In 1998, I went up to my family cabin alone with nothing on my to-do list but "just think" and it changed the course of my business forever.
I left the cabin with a "Painted Picture" – a game plan for my company for the next five years. That big-picture goal would have never come together if I hadn't made the specific choice to disconnect from my business and spend some solo time with my thoughts.
I've talked before about great leaders who spend 10 hours a week (or more) just thinking. Warren Buffett keeps his schedule wide open; LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner schedules two hour blocks each day to devote to thinking. I take every Friday away from the office. It doesn't mean that I'm not working. On my road bike, ideas for new businesses pop into my head; strolling through the forest, I'll have a thought about how to solve a nagging problem. For me, being away from the boardroom means getting much more done because I'm not caught in the stress of the day-to-day.
While not everyone in an organization needs 10 hours a week for big-picture thinking, I do firmly believe that regularly taking some time to "just think" is key at every level of the business. Here are ways we find time to make it happen:
Get serious about vacations
Being away – truly away – from the world of work can be one of the most effective ways to recharge our business brains. The fascinating thing is that distance and separation often lead to some of the most insightful and original ideas. Take inspiration for our WOW 1-Day Painting branding: it didn't come as I was hunkered down in front of my computer, but as I was strolling by a gelateria on holiday with my family in Italy. (I saw a smile drawn in one of the gelato flavours, and knew I had to incorporate that feel-good image into our logo).
We insist on all our staff taking at least five weeks of vacation and, more importantly, truly disconnecting from work during that time. We call it the 'going dark' policy – no work-related e-mails, texts or social media allowed. And we've seen this rule work some serious magic. I can't tell you how many of our staff have come back from their holidays, rejuvenated and refreshed, with a solution to a work problem that they dreamed up while they were hanging by the pool, relaxed and worry free.
Capitalize on your commute
The commute to and from the office can also be an amazing opportunity for meditation and thinking. Mike Downing, our project-management lead, actually runs to work and back each day. Though he started doing it for his physical health, it turned out to be a great opportunity for problem-solving and decision-making, too. On the move, in an exercise flow-state, his brain is free to wander without distractions.
Our COO, Erik Church, finds his commute to be especially productive. He's flying to and from Toronto weekly, and strategically uses the five-hour chunks for big-picture dreaming on behalf of the business. So often, we look at our commute as idle or wasted time when, in fact, it can be exactly the opposite. It's a chance – free from the bustle of meetings and office chatter – to gear up for the day ahead or wind down and envision what's on the professional horizon.
Find your zen (wherever you can)
If you want to give your employees that critical breathing room, I've found it's key to be open-minded about what "thinking" can look like. Getting into that zen mode will be a little different for everyone.
For me, I do my best thinking with the white-noise-buzz of the coffee shop around me (research has shown that mild ambient noise can improve creative performance). For others, it might be a walking meeting outside the office or the escape provided by a pair of noise-cancelling headphones.
The key is not to micromanage employees or impose your own systems on them from the top down. Create a culture where time to think is valued, lead by example and then trust your team to experiment. If you have the right people in the right seats, there should be no need for policing – you don't have to enforce office hours, things just work.
Take the time – especially when there's no time
We've been in red-alert mode at the office lately, experiencing some challenges with a huge new software implementation. But this week, I put that all aside and spent a few hours with my COO just talking about our 2020 Painted Picture for the company (that's right: our goals three years from now). Some people might think this is the worst possible week to be focusing on big-picture stuff – but to me, that means it's actually the perfect time. Because the thing about "just thinking" is that if you don't make time for it, you'll never do it. And when you're busiest, finding this pause and space can actually be the most critical.