If you’re a leader, you set the direction and vision for your organization or department, but there’s still a lot that’s not completely under your control: the behavior of other people, the state of the economy, the unfolding of world events, the overall pace of change. Sure, you can anticipate and react to these things, but you can’t totally control them.
What’s surprising, though, is how few leaders take the time to notice the one thing they can always control, even when the world is out of control: their thinking.
You may not be able to control the latest news cycle, but you can control:
- What you pay attention to
- The meaning you assign to it
- What you choose to do about it
That’s a lot. In fact, it’s enough to make a huge difference in your leadership effectiveness, your creative problem-solving abilities, and how productively you manage yourself and your thought processes, especially in the midst of the daily whirlwind that is work.
But to do this, you may have to change your perspective on what it means to take time out for deep thinking. Thinking time is not a luxury. It’s not wasted time. You’re not “doing nothing” when you’re deep in thought. You’re actually doing good, hard work. And you’re learning. As philosopher and teacher John Dewey wrote, “We do not learn from experience...we learn from reflecting on experience.”
To understand how important deep thinking is, consider what happens when you don’t make time for thinking. Besides a lack of learning, the costs can include:
- Inboxes that overflow with undefined stuff
- Great ideas that are never fully explored
- Valuable contributions that get lost or ignored
- Meetings with no clear agenda or follow-up actions
- Unfocused coaching, training and mentoring efforts that create no lasting change
Uninterrupted thinking takes effort. But it also allows our most creative ideas and useful plans to emerge. Making regular time to reflect on events rather than merely reacting to them is one of the hallmarks of an agile thinker and an effective leader.
How Effective Leaders Find the Time to Think
Another perception you may need to adjust is the belief that you simply don’t have the time to think. After all, your schedule probably feels like yet one more thing you can’t control. But making time for thinking doesn’t mean going off somewhere for hours on end to wrestle with big philosophical questions. It doesn’t necessarily even mean carving hours out of a busy day.
Try some of these techniques and see what works for you:
- Schedule it. Being spontaneous about thinking time often means that it never happens. So put it on your calendar, and make it a priority on par with any other meeting or appointment. You’ll start looking forward to this time as an oasis of calm in your day. Eventually your colleagues will honor it as well.
- Start with 15 minutes. That’s enough to get some quality thinking done. Get up 15 minutes earlier. Take 15 minutes out or your lunch time or daily commute. If possible take 15 minutes twice each day—once in the morning and once in the afternoon. At the very least, block out 15 minutes on a Saturday morning or Sunday night. During this block of time, focus on a single question or issue.
- Pair thinking with something you already do. Take a walk while you think. Let your brain wander as your feet wander. You can even dedicate some of your conversations to thinking. When you’re with a friend say: “There’s something on my mind; would you be willing to listen while I think out loud for a minute?”
- Match thinking time with energy peaks. Notice the times during the day when you feel most awake and alert. Whenever possible, set some of them aside for thinking.
- Disconnect from technology. During your scheduled thinking time, resist the urge to check email, surf the Internet or reach for your phone. Give yourself the gift of focused, tech-free time.
- Capture ideas on the run. Some of your best ideas will emerge while you’re in transit between events. Always have something with you—a notepad, your phone—to catch those ideas before they’re lost.
Most leaders have to deal with constant stimulus and interruptions when they’re at work. These make up the “noise” in your day. While you can’t always silence the noise, you can learn to find the productive rhythms within it. It starts with having regular thinking time.
If you’re feeling stressed or barrelling through the day without taking that moment to think, it’s a reaction to what’s happening in the world outside your head. In any given moment, those events can seem so personal, so compelling, so urgent, so final. But look at it another way and you’ll find that it’s all input. It’s the beginning of a new chain of events that you can set in motion. The output—your response—is up to you.