Give Yourself the Gift of Unconscious Thought

Posted 12.18.2019

As 2019 winds down, I’ve been talking with a lot of clients and one thing that everyone (including me) has in common is that we’re coming in hot. The end of year cram down to get stuff done before the holiday break begins has felt crazier than ever. And, then, in a couple of weeks, we’ll wipe the slate clean and start pursuing the goals of 2020.

Here’s some advice (for myself as much as anyone) before you dive into next year. Over the holidays, quit thinking so much. At least quit thinking about what you’ve accomplished and what you need to accomplish. Give yourself the gift of unconscious thought.

Unconscious thought kind of sounds like an oxymoron doesn’t it? Is there even such a thing? Yes, there is. As I wrote about a few years ago, the research demonstrates it. And, if you stop and think about it, your real-life experience demonstrates it. For instance, consider where or when you get your best ideas. I’ve asked a lot of leaders to tell me over the years and the top answers are in the shower, working out and commuting. No one has ever said. “At my desk in front of my computer.” The best ideas come when we’re not actively thinking about or working on a problem.

You can use unconscious thinking to your strategic advantage. Before you officially shut things down for the holidays, frame up a short list of goals, opportunities or challenges you want to take on in 2020. Write them down, then forget about the list for a while. I’ll pretty much guarantee you that over the holidays you’re going to have some great ideas pop into your head about the steps you should take to follow through on your list. When you do, write those ideas down too. If you’re really on a roll, keep writing until you feel like stopping then stop and resume the process of not actively thinking about next year.

I feel confident in offering this advice because it’s worked for me a lot over the years including as recently as a couple of weeks ago. My wife, Diane, and I went on our annual retreat to have some fun together while we do personal and business planning for the coming year. One of the things we’ve found in doing these retreats for a couple of decades is that the key is to leave plenty of time for unconscious thought. For example, for our business planning retreat day, we talked about a few goals over dinner the night before. On the day itself, we had a light breakfast and took a walk. Then we came back to our room and started filling up flip chart pages with goals and ideas for a couple of hours. We felt good about what we were coming up with but sensed we needed a break so we went to lunch and took another walk. When we got back, we were mentally fresh and filled up another five pages or so. The walls of our room became plastered with pages full of goals for the next three years and ideas for executing them. After a couple of hours, we looked at each other and simultaneously said, “I need a break.” We both did our own thing for a bit and, before I knew it, I was back at the pages jotting down more ideas and so was Diane. There’s no way we would have accomplished as much that day if we just stayed there and kept grinding and grinding. Our brains needed time to process and connect the dots.

So does yours. Give yourself the gift of unconscious thought this holiday season. You’ll ultimately get a lot more good stuff done if you do.

And, to help you keep that commitment, I’ll be taking a break from filling up your blog post feed for a couple of weeks. Have a wonderful holiday season. I’ll see you back here in 2020.

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