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Thinking Time: The Leader’s Essential Luxury

One of the most important activities to put on your calendar—one which your colleagues must respect and should encourage—is, in fact, nothing.

Photo courtesy of Keegan Houser via Unsplash

As someone who advises leaders across the spectrum from business to public policy, I’m always interested in how they can gain what legendary racing driver Mark Donohue called “the unfair advantage.” I’ve written before about how leaders can harness the creativity of their employees and the importance of avoiding burnout despite the pressures of ambition and passion. Another vital issue is finding the time and mental space to think.

No one reading this will be surprised that pressure on schedules is a universal problem for people in positions of leadership and authority. The higher you climb, the more people stake claims on your attention, the more responsibility you have and the more meetings and other events you are expected or asked to attend. Many of you will rely on your EAs or PAs or chiefs of staff, your gatekeepers with whom you must have a relationship of total trust. They can help you prioritize engagements, filter the tsunami of invitations and help you navigate your way through the day, week and month.

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But one of the most important activities to put on your calendar, one which your colleagues must respect and should encourage, is, in fact, nothing. Or rather, it is not a meeting, nor an engagement, but simply some solitude, some time alone not to relax (although that is also hugely beneficial) but to be able to think.

How often, during a stressful period, do you feel that the world is rushing at you relentlessly? Sometimes the volume of work coming at you can seem overwhelming, and simply getting through the day can crowd out any other thoughts. Inevitably, as day follows night, it has a negative impact on your efficiency and your performance. You lapse into survival mode, feeling time pass but having the nagging feeling that, intellectually, you are treading water. You need thinking time.

I’m a passionate believer that creativity is at the very core of true success. Whether it is brilliant technological ingenuity, process-based innovation or traditional artistic creativity, that spark of the new is what kindles the fire of progress. It’s also the most satisfying part of anyone’s work. However, despite what you may see in books and films, creativity isn’t simply about flashes of inspiration, lightbulb moments which happen in an instant and are suddenly transformative. They take time, and they take brainpower.

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I do a lot of writing, and people are sometimes impressed by how quickly I can produce pieces. But the application of fingers to keys is just the last stage: I’ve almost always thought about the content, the structure and the shape extensively, and I have a notion in my mind of how the article will appear. The hoary old iceberg simile is warranted here—typing out the words is the tip above the surface, and the rest is thought. And thought needs time.

“But I’m so busy.”

“There are so many meetings.”

“I haven’t got time to do nothing.”

Yes, you have, and you must. That time is some of the most valuable you can set aside, and if you don’t, then you’re robbing your own potential.

It isn’t easy. If you’re at the top of the tree, you have to make it clear to your employees that you’re not slacking off, you’re not coasting; this thinking time is golden and is the replenishment of your energy. If you are responsible to superiors, they need to understand that too, and respect it—and you should do so for your workforce.

How you choose to shape and spend your thinking time is entirely up to you. In this, as in so many things, we are all different, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. I’m a cigar smoker, so I find that taking the time to enjoy a good smoke and coffee and simply giving my mind the space to play with ideas, shuffle notions, make connections and polish words is massively helpful. Sometimes I take extensive notes, but more often, it’s a more serene and cerebral exercise, maybe a few words jotted in a notebook or on the phone.

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At first you will feel guilty. You should be doing something else you will tell yourself, something real. Try to weather that, because this is as real as anything you will ever do—and as valuable. You may look like you’re relaxing and having fun, but here’s the secret: If you’re like me, if you’re passionate and absorbed by what you do, you are having fun. But that doesn’t negate its value.

So, start modestly. Put an hour in your diary, once a week, for you to think, and make it inviolable. Don’t shave off five minutes here and there; remember that this is as important as a big meeting or networking session. Find something and somewhere calming, whether it’s a spell in the gym or a sunny terrace and a cup of good coffee. Pick a subject to start yourself off, and let your mind chase it wherever it naturally goes. Review what you’ve thought about at the end of an hour, and I promise you, you’ll find you’ve done some worthwhile and innovative thinking.

Let me know how it goes by emailing me at eliot@pivotpoint.group. I’m really interested!

Eliot Wilson is the cofounder of Pivot Point, a change management, strategy and PR consultancy based in London.

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