Three Simple Ways to Create Space to Think

Posted 03.03.2014

spacetimeLast week, I took a break from working on my new book about mindful alternatives to being overworked and overwhelmed to speak to the New Jersey Human Resources Planning Group on the same topic. We had a great morning together and it was a terrific opportunity to pilot some of the ideas from the book with a roomful of smart people.

One of the things we spent some time talking about is how do you create the space to step back and actually think about what really needs to be done when the input is coming in far faster than the output is going out?

Based on the research I’ve been doing for my book along with some of the ideas that came up in the room last week are three simple ways to create the space to think:

Leverage Time: One of the leaders I’ve interviewed for the new book is Admiral Thad Allen, the former Commandant of the US Coast Guard who led the recovery efforts after both Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. There aren’t many jobs that get more high stakes and high profile than that. When I asked Allen about the routines that enabled him to perform at his best, he told me that, on the days when he was in his office as Commandant, he rode his bike 15 miles to work every day. That 45 minute ride was not just his exercise for the day but also his time to do mental planning and reflection on projects, public appearances and tough problems. In a packed, busy schedule he leveraged the time he had available to give himself space to think.

Schedule Time: Another leader I’ve spoken with is Brian Halligan, the CEO of the rapidly growing web marketing firm Hubspot. Brian’s workdays are packed with back to back meetings from morning to night. To give himself space to think, he works from home every Wednesday. He finds that the mid-week break gives his introverted batteries a chance to charge and that most of his big ideas come then. Not every job lends itself to scheduling your own work at home day the same day of every week, but many do. Yours may be one. If you can’t do it every week, how about every other or once a month? How about a half day every couple of months?

Protect Time: Many of the leaders I’ve spoken with both for the book project and in groups like NJHRPG recognize that it’s all too easy to fill up all of your brain space with issues that aren’t your priorities. Admiral Allen calls them the things that “rent space in your head.” There are lots of ways to avoid that. The first is to be aware when it’s happening so you can make some proactive decisions about how to spend your time. Monica Oswald, a vice president, in a financial services company regularly grabs a conference room and leaves her smart phone behind when she wants to really focus on the things that are most important. Many of the leaders I’ve spoken with schedule a couple of windows a day to respond to email and then ignore it the rest of the day.

What do you do to create space to think?