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Prioritize More Time to Think

Updated: May 15

At a retreat for 50 managers in healthcare, the institution's chief medical officer was lined up to kickoff the event. This CMO was revered and considered a titan in her work. She had been at the hospital for just 5 years but was now believed to be the heart and backbone of their mission. She was tough and compassionate.

An air of nervousness descended among the group when she arrived. People became very quiet. Not from intimidation, rather respect. This CMO had a presence of 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 they. 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 about your work, what would it be?”

The CMO 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? 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.

The Benefits

Being busy is rewarded and revered. Identity and definitions of success are often attached to the number of hours we work. Despite that meetings are scheduled back-to-back from 8am-5pm, everyone is still expected to produce deliverables. This means we work above and beyond the "work day". On top of it all, we expect to have energy left over to be partners, parents, friends, and family members.

It is no surprise that many leaders 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:

  1. Plan it. Review your week and look for a consistent time when shutting off your phone and closing your laptop to reflect is feasible.

  2. Try 15 minutes to start. Plan for longer if you think it is realistic.

  3. 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.

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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, coaching, and professional development resources.


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