Consultant Scott Eblin, on his blog, says "a lot of thinking is really just reacting. On any given day, there's so much coming at us that we just react or reflexively respond to the input. That's not all bad. A lot of stuff gets done that way. But whose stuff is getting done – yours or someone else's? To get your own most important stuff done, you have to create space to think."
Intrigued by that challenge, he asked people when and where they think. The number one answer, as you might expect, is in the shower. The next two biggies are when exercising and driving to work. Mr. Eblin says those are fine, but it's usually hard to write much down in those situations, and they may not be prolonged enough for tackling complex stuff. He says you also need to be able to create the space to think in a way that allows you to capture and build on your ideas.
- Commit to a topic: There are many things that could flood your mind in any given moment. Pick an important topic and commit to thinking about it.
- Block some time: Set aside an hour or two to think about that topic or, Mr. Eblin adds, read about the issue if more research is needed. “My sense is that blocking out more than two hours of think time at any one sitting is probably a waste of time for most people. It’s hard to maintain your focus on any given topic for more than an hour or two. If you need more than two hours of think time on the topic, schedule more time on other days,” he writes.
- Find another space for thinking: Get out of your normal work space to refresh yourself and provide different visual cues. Consider a new coffee shop you haven’t tried before.
- Attend a conference: If the issue is a toughie, consider a conference on the topic that allows you to immerse yourself in possibilities.
- Take notes: By writing down the thoughts that come to your mind, you don’t have to worry about remembering them. That’s actually a part of creating space: more time to think, less to worry about remembering. And once you have a note-taking process – Mr. Eblin is a fan of Evernote, which is searchable and shared on various electronic devices – you now have a place to record that sudden thought at another time.
In our pressure-packed life, too often we leave thinking to happenstance. Why gamble on that approach, given the importance of thinking through important issues?
Dysfunction isn't heroism
It's not just finding time to think that is difficult. For many people, finding the time to sleep, eat leisurely and do real work between the crush of meetings and e-mail is a huge challenge.
Ed Batista, who coaches executives and works with MBA students at Stanford University, commonly hears about people forgoing sleep in order to continue working at night (usually on low-value e-mail); scheduling events back-to-back all day and literally running from one to the next; minimizing time with family and skipping workouts or other forms of self-care; and eating meals alone at a desk.
"This is deeply dysfunctional, and we know it," Mr. Batista writes on his blog. "We know that sufficient sleep is essential for effective leadership, optimal performance, and emotion regulation. We know that time for reflection is necessary to do our best work and to learn from experience. We know that the sense of well-being that can come from strong personal relationships, regular physical activity and other forms of self-care is associated with improved performance. And we know that eating together strengthens teams."
Unfortunately, he says, we view this dysfunctional approach as heroic sacrifice. Our narrative around work justifies these dysfunctional practices and regards those who do it as heroes.
Mr. Batista urges you to educate yourself on the research showing how damaging this approach is. Then experiment with a better sleep regime, regular exercise, and mindfulness practice. Put boundaries in place and stick to them.
Finally, change the narrative you have embraced. "The stories we tell ourselves about the world have an impact on our experience in it. Ultimately we have to recognize that there's a difference between actual heroic sacrifices and imaginary ones, and we need to see this distinction clearly. Hard work is a wonderful thing – but dysfunction isn't heroism," he says.
Try a portfolio approach to rebalance your life
As you educate yourself about the frenzied life you lead and contemplate a different narrative, consider applying a portfolio approach to rebalancing. Blogger Donald Latumahina notes that in investing, our portfolio has different asset classes – such as stocks, bonds, and cash – and periodically it's necessary to rebalance our allocation to better serve our financial needs. It's similar with your life, which has five asset classes:
- Spiritual: Your relationship with a greater power.
- Health: Your physical health.
- Work: Your career and finance.
- Social: Your relationships with others.
- Learning: Your personal development.
Periodically, you should rebalance. Start with looking at areas that seem underweighted and need more attention. Then look at those that seem to be demanding too many of your resources and are overweight. Where do you spend so much time and energy that it takes away from the other aspects?
For most people, work will surface as an issue. But he also urges you to consider a less obvious candidate: idleness. "This is when you do things that are not included in the five aspects above. For example, you might be watching too much TV. In such case, it's the idleness that's overweight," Mr. Latumahina writes.
Figure out ways to reduce the resources drawn to those overweight areas. He suggests you set boundaries, such as stopping work at 6 p.m., eliminate certain tasks or delegate items to others. Then devote more resources to the underweighted areas.
"The key here is to plan ahead what you are going to do. If not, your extra time might only be spent on idleness, which is the default way of spending time for most people," Mr. Latumahina says.
- Apple co-founder Steve Jobs believed in the power of focus and would ask his chief designer Jony Ive how many times he had said “no” each day.
- Getting hired often requires a resume that can get by computer screening. Here’s a helpful tip from blogger Kerry K. Taylor: Look at five to 10 job listings with similar job titles in your field and pick out words that are repeatedly mentioned, aiming for eight keywords to fit into your resume to satisfy the likely computer algorithm.
- If you’re asked to stay late when you’re about to leave the office for a personal obligation, leadership coach Alicia Bassuk recommends replying, “Excuse me, I have another commitment.” She says the sentence serves as an implicit, respectable request for confidentiality, forces the other person to appear intrusive if he or she asks more about the commitment and avoids oversharing about the reason for your departure.
- If you find yourself saying to a supervisor (or thinking to yourself), “I’ve gotten this feedback before,” then consultant Jesse Sostrin says you are playing with fire and need to address the issue.
- When making purchases, entrepreneur Seth Godin suggests cost – what you have to give up to get what you are seeking – is more important than price. So be careful about shopping for the lowest price.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter.