As a species we are categorised as human “beings”.
… but, I think, in this day and age most of us would be better described as human “doings”.
We are bombarded. We are often close to overwhelm from emails, texts, phone calls, a plethora of notifications from an ever expanding legion of apps … all of which are distracting and prevent us from thinking about what we really want and about our purpose and about our goals. We are focused on “doing” and not on “being” or perhaps more correctly, at least for this article, on “thinking”. I believe, you may have a different opinion, that:
- We need to be thinking more about the issues important to us.
- We need more thinking time.
There's a great book called The Road Less Stupid where the author, Keith Cunningham, sets out a process for thinking time which I'm going to adapt here.
I've always attempted to build thinking time into my routine, pre-covid, in the 2-3 hours of driving I used to do most days, but having read the above, I have to say rather excellent book, I'm now (post-covid?) attempting to put much more structure into my thinking time.
Thinking time is, and should be (I think) a bit of a ritual and defining your perfect ritual may take a bit of experimentation to work out, what for you is:
- The best time of the day
- The best location and
- The optimum duration
But, as Cunningham suggests the key here is to obsess about getting to the right outcomes and not finding the perfect process.
I'm lucky enough to have a spare and separate office at home in the garden… I made it myself, it's built of straw and is covered with six tonnes of render, so I doubt it's about to be blown down by the Big Bad Wolf. In it, amongst other things, I have a small sofa with a small table for a mug of strong black coffee. I also have a thinking notebook and my favourite pen. All part of the ritual.
All sorts of weird and wonderful thoughts arrive in my head, often unannounced, at various points in the day and week, these thoughts are recorded as they arrive so as they are not lost.
Prior to the thinking session I would have refined these thoughts into specific questions or issues I want to think more deeply about. Usually, I use more than one question, possibly four or five, each coming at the issue from a variety of different directions. For example, if I'm looking to hire another consultant, as I am now;
- Where do I find my best consultants?
- Where have I found my best consultants?
- Where might I find my best consultant?
- Who is my best consultant?
Additionally, I might radically change the context and pose a completely hypothetical question… if I were starting again today, from scratch, where might I find the best consultant?
Obviously, you can replace the word “consultant” with a whole host of alternative words; market, sector, customer, supplier, staff member, each of these questions will trigger different ideas, insights answers. A bit like brainstorming, the trick is to let the ideas flow.
Additionally, other questions may occur as part of the actual thinking time. I like this and think it's perfectly fine, the objective is not to focus on answering the question necessarily, the objective is to create options or perhaps possibilities which can be shifted and organised later.
I would have already cleared my calendar for an hour, for me at the moment the best time is Friday at 4:00 o'clock.
In order to eliminate distractions regarding time I set an alarm for 45 minutes and another for 15 minutes after that.
A distraction free environment is essential. Put the office phone and the mobile on do not disturb, turn off the computer screens so you are not distracted by email notifications. Take a perch on my sofa, meditate on the taste of the coffee and … think away. (For those that know me, I have decided to have one black coffee a day in place of my “funny tea bags”.)
Like Cunningham I find that one thinking session is not usually sufficient to get a satisfactorily robust answer. As a result, I tend to view thinking time as a process not a one time event. I might need two or three thinking time sessions before I arrive at a suitably subtle answer.
Remember this is a creative process, and just like brainstorming, it shouldn't be filtered or judged… Also from time to time I hit the sometimes inevitable blind spot, at which point I might shift the emphasis of the question, for instance asking, given the same situation, what my old best boss, Peter Davies, would do… or what one of our key competitors might do.
Cunningham suggests, and I'd certainly agree, that better ideas usually emerge as part of the third third. I find the first third of the 45 minutes focuses on ideas that you've already had … They’re close to the surface and not that different to thoughts that you may have had before, the second third is a variation on those themes and the third third is where Marco, my coach, would say, “the juice has been worth the squeeze”.
On the final straight then, on completion of the 45 minute thinking time there's the second 15-20 minute period to review what's been written and capture the best ideas. I think of two types of ideas. There are quick and dirty ideas and there are long and intensive ideas.
Quick and dirty ideas get taken to the weekly management meeting. Long and intensive ideas will go into a separate file ready for retrieval for the quarterly planning sessions. Obviously not all make it to the cut but at least I have given myself a structure … and a ritual.
Prior to Covid I was doing most of my thinking in the car, I'd usually be travelling two to three hours a day and I would forever be pulling over to stop to make notes! Now my thinking time is both shorter and more productive. Taking the time out to think about the business from a distance and without being distracted has actually allowed me to achieve more in less time.
Adopting this structure, I have now at least given myself the opportunity to transition from human “doing” all be it just for one hour a week … and whilst I can't yet claim to make it to fully fledged human “being”, I am at least for an hour, once a week, human “thinking”. You can be too.
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