At a leadership retreat for 25 senior directors, the Vice-president of the company was delivering the keynote speech. This VP was revered and considered a titan in her work. She had been at the company for only 5 years but was now believed to be the heart and backbone of their mission. She was compassionate and tough. An air of nervousness descended among the group when she arrived. People became very quiet. Not from intimidation, rather respect. As the retreat facilitator, I immediately noticed her presence, a calm confidence.
She shared her career path and told stories with consideration and humor. The first self-deprecating joke relaxed the group and reminded them all that she was as human as them. She left plenty of time at the end to invite questions from the group. A leader raised their hand to ask:
“If you could spend more time doing something different, what would it be?”
The VP didn’t miss a beat. She responded promptly, “Thinking.”
Her greatest challenge as she advanced in her career was protecting time to think deeply about her work. She wasn’t one to have regrets but if there is one piece of advice she shares regularly with today’s leaders it is this: Prioritize more time to think.
She then asked the group: “When do you get your best ideas? Is it in front of your laptop staring at a spreadsheet? Checking email? Scrolling through your phone? Probably not.”
This sparked a lively discussion amongst the leaders on how to prioritize more time to think.
How often do you prioritize thinking time?
The Netflix docu-series about Bill Gates, Inside Bill’s Brain, introduced us to “Think Week” – a twice yearly, solo trip he takes to a secluded cabin to read and think. Shonda Rhimes, writer, super showrunner, and creator of Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, and How to Get Away with Murder, gets up well before her three kids to be in the right headspace for the day.
Gates, Rhimes, and many other leaders who prioritize time to think are on to something.
“Neuroscientists have discovered that solitary, inwardly focused reflection employs a different brain network than outwardly focused attention. When our mental focus is directed towards the outside world, the executive attention network is activated, while the imagination network is typically suppressed. This is why our best ideas don’t tend to arise when our attention is fully engaged on the outside world.” (Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D and Caroline Gregoire, Greater Good Magazine)
This week we are focusing on how to bring our best ideas forward. We’ll address the benefits of deep thinking (also called reflection), provide guidance on how to begin, and share examples of leaders who have already developed the habit.
“Snap out of it!” These were the words of our 9th grade teacher as my friend was busted yet again for staring off into space during class and not doing the assignment. We learn at an early age that focus and productivity are king.
Being busy is rewarded and revered. Identity and definitions of success are often attached to the number of hours we work. Meetings are scheduled back-to-back from 8am-5pm, everyone is still expected to produce deliverables, and have energy left over to be partners, parents, friends, and family members.
It is no surprise that many of the leaders I work with crave solitude and thinking time and know very well the impact it could have on their well-being. Among many others, this thinking time would enable them to:
- Explore something new and novel.
- Align to values.
- Focus on professional development.
- Engage in the meaning and purpose of work.
- Feel better.
It also requires a short amount of time to reap the benefits. Research has shown that when employees spent just 15 minutes every day thinking about lessons learned, they performed better over time (Harvard Business Review).
There is no question to the benefits of dedicating solitary time to think. Like with so many other things that are good for us, the challenge is connecting the knowing with doing.
We know we should make time to think – but how do we actually do it?
How to Begin
The type of thinking we’re referring to is often also called reflection. This is the practice of engaging in careful thought about the beliefs you have and the actions you take (or don’t take). If a practice of reflection isn’t already incorporated into the daily routine, there might be a feeling of futility.
“My schedule is packed and now you want me to stop what I’m doing to think?” Yes.
For that reason, start small. Here are few tips:
- Plan it. Review your week and look for a consistent time when shutting off your phone and closing your laptop to reflect is feasible.
- Try 15 minutes to start. Plan for longer if you think it is realistic.
- Think about what you are learning. What new information, skills, people, and/or experiences have you encountered and how have they impacted you and your effectiveness or well-being?
If you are someone who likes even more structure than this, here is a worksheet to help you get started.
From the Real World
Sometimes it is easier to begin after seeing some examples. All names below have been changed but they are real leaders who have developed a habit of reflection in different ways.
- Jordan spends the last 15 minutes of his day reviewing his task list, updating it, and thinking about what he accomplished. His thoughts center on the positive impact his work had on him and/or his team. He does not spend this time focusing on what he did not accomplish or what went wrong.
- Margaret has replaced what used to be her 30-minute morning commute with a 30-minute walk. She does not listen to podcasts or music. She pays attention to the sounds in the neighborhood as she walks. Not only has it improved her health, but she has found her creativity is often sparked. She uses her phone to voice record ideas she has during this time.
- DeAnn has instituted “No Meeting Fridays” in her department. She spends one hour every Friday staring out the window or going for a walk to think about her week. She uses the rest of the time to complete projects, brainstorm new initiatives, catch-up on business reading, and participate in professional development training or webinars.
- Brian has small children at home and uses Sunday afternoon nap time to prioritize thinking and reflection. The house is nearly silent at this time which he says creates the space in his brain for new ideas to emerge.
The toughest part about establishing a practice of reflecting is sticking with it. It won’t be perfect, and it also will not always work. Life will take over and distractions will get in the way.
Therefore, refine it, try new approaches, extend the time, or shorten the time. You will eventually settle into the right cadence and approach for you.
The point is to keep doing it.
This article originally appeared in the Growth Partners Consulting blog.