How often do you engage in thinking time?
Here is what I’m not talking about: zoning out or staring blankly at a wall out of boredom or fatigue.
Rather, this is intentional blocks of time to reflect, ponder, let your mind wander, or imagine. It is to structure space in your schedule to simply think.
Many leaders find great success with this practice. Here’s why:
“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.” (Greater Good Magazine, 2016)
To put it another way, we can actively create new ideas about work by not working.
Yet, it requires most leaders to go against what they think they should be doing to be effective.
In many organizational cultures, being busy is rewarded and revered. Identity and definitions of success are often attached to the number of hours worked. Meetings are scheduled back-to-back from 8am-5pm, everyone is still expected to produce deliverables, and have energy left over at the end of the day to be partners, parents, friends, and family members.
It makes very little logical sense.
It is no surprise that many crave solitude and thinking time and know very well the impact it could have on their well-being. Thinking time enables them to:
Explore something new and novel.
Align to values, finding more meaning and purpose in work.
Focus on professional development and personal impact.
The beauty of this time is that it often makes a leader just feel better, restoring their energy.
It requires a short amount of time to reap the benefits. Research has shown that when employees spent just 15 minutes at the end of the day thinking about what they’ve learned, they performed better over time (Harvard Business Review).
There is no question to the benefits of dedicating solitary time to think. Like with 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?
Create Structure and Routine
Consistency is the backbone of performance. No athlete, physician, parent, or professional of any type gets great results without it. To be consistent, one must have structure (specific moments in time dedicated to the action) and routine (repetitive practice of that action).
Establishing a practice of reflection is no different.
Therefore, start small and shoot for creating structure and routine with a goal of being consistent.
Review your week and look for a time when shutting off your phone and closing your laptop is feasible. Determine if you want to try a daily practice or weekly.
If daily, try 15 minutes to start. If weekly, try 30-45 minutes. Consistency is the goal and giving enough time for that to be established is important. Plan to practice what you have established for a week or two.
Reflect one what you are learning. What new information, skills, people, and/or experiences have encountered and what impact have they had on your effectiveness and well-being.
If you prefer specific questions to spark your thinking, pull from this list.
From the Real World
It is often easier to get started after seeing 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 looking out the window at the trees and sky or going for a walk to contemplate her week. She uses the rest of the time to complete projects, brainstorm new initiatives, as well as catch-up on 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 thinking and reflection is sticking with it. Consistency by way of structure and routine will help you get there. Refine the approach, extend the time, or shorten the time. You will eventually settle into the right cadence for you.
The point is to keep doing it.
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Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training and coaching.
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