What to Do When You Have No Time to Think


by Peter on June 8, 2011

Share Your Thoughts

On a recent hectic business trip to Florence, I lucked out; my client booked me into the Four Seasons. The hotel consists of two restored Renaissance palaces, separated by 11 acres of garden. I was thrilled.

That is, until I arrived and saw that my room was in the more distant building. Every time I entered the hotel, I had to walk the length of the garden to my room.

My days were jam-packed with consulting, and I still had all my other work to take care of. That long, forced walk was going to steal valuable time in my day, time I could scarcely afford.

At first I entered the garden annoyed and walked through with speed and determination. But, to my surprise, each time I walked through the garden, I walked a little more slowly. Eventually, that garden walk became a transformative experience. As I meandered along the winding paths, my mind began to wander too, making connections, drawing insights, and developing ideas.

In our fast-paced, productivity-focused lives and workplaces, we are losing our gardens — literally and figuratively. We need to reclaim them.

I had lunch recently with Rajip, the Chief Technology Officer of a large investment bank. When we returned to his office after spending an hour together, he had received 138 new email messages. As we talked, the email dings kept ringing out. “How can I possibly keep up?” he asked me.

He can’t. Rajip has close to 10,000 employees in his group. “I have no time to think,” he complained to me.

I have no time to think. Possibly the six scariest words uttered by a leader. But they don’t scare us anymore because they are so commonplace. We don’t need 10,000 employees to feel too busy to think. Almost all of us feel the same way.

It’s not that we’re unproductive; we’re astoundingly productive. We produce deliverables. We make decisions. We create and spend budgets. We direct our teams. We write proposals.

Actually, in some ways, our productivity is the problem. Something’s lost in an environment of manic productivity: learning.

These busy days, we rarely analyze our experiences thoughtfully, contemplate the views of others carefully, or evaluate how the outcomes of our decisions should affect our future choices. Those things take time. They require us to slow down. And who has the time for that? So we reflect less and limit our growth.

Often, it’s only when our lives are forcibly disrupted that we slow down long enough to learn. An illness, a job loss, the death of a loved one — they all compel us to stop and think and evaluate things. But those are unwelcome disruptions and, hopefully, they don’t occur often.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could learn continuously without forced disruptions? If we could disrupt ourselves for a few moments every day in order to think and learn?

What we need is a few minutes to walk in a metaphorical garden.

My suggestion to Rajip? Think about where you do your best thinking and make it a habit to go there daily. I have made it a practice to take a variety of garden walks daily.

One garden walk is outdoor exercise. If I go for a bike ride, a run, or a walk, it’s practically inevitable that I’ll figure something out and come back with a better perspective. This is my favorite, most dependable garden for creative ideas.

Another is writing. As I write, my ideas develop and my experiences gently nudge me towards my continuously developing worldview. There’s no need to share the writing — a private journal works well — and it doesn’t have to take more than a few minutes.

Conversations with friends and colleagues reliably provide me with a refreshing and instructive walk in the garden. This depends on the generosity of those around me and I’m careful not to abuse that. I usually start the conversation with some version of: “Do you have a few minutes to think about something with me?” I don’t let it turn into a gripe session, and I keep it focused on questioning my view, rather than seeking confirmation of it.

Garden walks can be very quick; you just have to periodically prioritize thinking over tinkering. I set my watch to beep hourly, and, when it does, I ask myself how the last hour went and what I plan to do over the next hour. One minute is almost no time, but it’s enough of a pause to be useful. And, as I mentioned in a previous post, The Best Way to Use the Last Five Minutes of Your Day, I take a few minutes every afternoon before leaving the office to evaluate what I experienced that day.

Chris Fox, profiled by Fast Company as one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business, manages all the engineers and designers working on Facebook. Like Rajip, he doesn’t have the luxury of lots of time to think. “My commute is my most productive creative time,” he said, “I’m not focusing on anything but I still have the energy of intense focus.”

Unfocused focus. Sounds like a nice walk in a garden.

Some names and some details changed