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How To Make Thinking Time Super Productive

Last updated May 5, 2021
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Have you had some thinking time this week? I usually think in my car - although that wasn't so easy in lock down. Sometimes my thinking time is because I need to solve a problem other times I'm in planning mode, defining my next 5 moves.

As an aside, I just finished a great book called Your Next 5 Moves by Patrick Bet-David. As a business planning coach this book was right up my street and one all business owners should read. It gets a 9 out of 10 from me!

Anyway back to my thinking time….

I turn the radio and phone off and I ask the question that I need to answer, the problem to solve or an opportunity to exploit. You've all seen people singing their hearts out in their cars or chatting on the phone but I'm really talking to myself.

I ask my question out loud as if I'm asking my invisible passenger, then I let my mind wander - concentrating on my driving of course.

You see, asking the question out loud is like having somebody ask you the question.

We’re trained to find an answer when asked a question: our brain goes to work as soon as it hears a question and starts trying to find the solution. It doesn't always happen straight away, but rest assured it does happen - sometimes at the most inopportune moment!

Walking is also valuable thinking time (even without a dog!) As I leave the house I ask the question out loud and then as a walk my sub conscious goes to work. I’ve learnt to carry a small notebook with me because when the answers come thick and fast it’s time to find a perch and get my thoughts on paper. My kids would say just turn on dictation, but I love to scribble.

In my book The Grown-Up Business I explain that in addition to your productive time there are 3 types of important time: thinking, planning and clear head time.

Here is the extract for you…

Take the time you need

Do you turn up for work every day because you feel that you ought to? Are you the first person there in the morning, the last one to go at night, and the only one in at the weekend? Do you feel that you should be at your desk all the time because you’re the boss? Or do you have to be there to make sure everything happens as it should do?

Stop. You are the boss, you do have a choice. In fact, you owe it to the business to take some time out. If you’re working in the business all day every day, when will you get time to think, plan, seek out and explore opportunities, or just to clear your head of stuff? Taking time out or making time for important things is, well, important. Unfortunately, many business owners assume that being at work all the time is good leadership. So let’s see the benefits of giving yourself permission to take a break and clear your head.

There are three types of important time, in addition to your productive time: thinking time, planning time, and clear-head time. Thinking time happens best when you just let your mind wander. No interruptions and a change of scene help. Planning time is time to work hard on a specific problem. Clear-head time happens when you don’t think about work, to refresh your mind, such as weekends, holidays, or the odd half-day out of the office for something completely different. (For me, it’s golf.)

There are many reasons why you need to give yourself permission to be away from the company. While the day-to-day running of the company is important, so is your time away from routine work.

Planning time

  • Reflect on what happened, what didn’t, and what can be improved. How did your actual performance match up to the budget? Sort through all of the facts, get a clearer perspective.
  • Make adjustments to get you back on track or to set a new course. Reforecast the forthcoming months.
  • Identify problem areas; study problems from different angles.
  • Seek out opportunities.
  • Clarify your goals.
  • Assess whether it’s time to change direction.

It’s easy to be consumed with the day-to-day tasks of running a business. All too often, planning time is overtaken by the in-tray, emails, phone calls, and client and staff demands. You have to make your planning time sacrosanct.

I have several clients who have a Monday morning or Friday afternoon status meeting, where they reflect on what has or hasn’t happened and plan the immediate next steps.

Every week is great; at minimum, every month you should review and plan. The perfect time is when the monthly management accounts and profit-and-loss statements are prepared for the previous month. How often do you just flick through the accounts and put them to one side when you should be taking time to really understand them? If there is one meeting that should never be cancelled it’s your monthly senior management meeting (or board meeting). It’s far too important to cancel and even a day’s delay could have a negative impact. But make it effective planning time, where the outcomes are action-orientated.

Each quarter, you should set aside more time to review the entire business, its performance and any opportunities and threats on the horizon. Then replan, reforecast and rebudget.

ACTION: Take one planning item from your to-do list – perhaps an upcoming exhibition or the next quarters’ marketing strategy – and book an afternoon out of the office. Go somewhere else and work on planning, nothing else. This is your planning time.

Thinking time

  • Carve out quiet time to think, with no interruptions.
  • Explore what’s going on around you. What are your competitors up to, what new demands might your customers or clients have, what are your suppliers planning next?
  • Explore creative options: ask yourself the “What if…?” question.
  • Experience something different.
  • Re-engage with your dream.

When there is so much going on, so much to do, so many plates spinning or wobbling, you don’t have chance to think about anything. But if you are to have any chance at all of moving your business forward, you must have time to think: quiet time, time to mull, time to ask the “What if…?” questions. Too busy to think is a poor excuse and you have to find productive thinking time.

You don’t need loads of thinking time, but you need good thinking time. Several short bursts, a couple of hours here and there, will be enough. Take yourself away from the day-to-day business environment, remove distractions, and find a place where you can think.

My writing coach, Megan Kerr, taught me a great little exercise. Set 10–15 minutes aside to work on just one issue. Work hard at it for that short time period. Just as you finish, ask yourself a positive question, such as “How can I improve…?”, “What options do I have?, “How can I get x to work?”, “What is the real problem?” and so on. Now go away and do something completely different. One of the things Megan suggested was doing the housework, which is never much fun for me, although it proved to be very productive! Why? Because when you go and do something completely different, you can let your subconscious go to work on the last tricky problem that you gave it to think about.

You have to be disciplined and organised. Start these new disciplines now and very soon you’ll wonder how you managed to function without any thinking time.

ACTION: Try asking yourself one question – a “How can I…?” question. Now go and do something different: go for a swim, take a walk, do anything but work. Don’t rush the answer; let your subconscious solve it for you. It may take you an hour or three, or a day or two, but the answer will come.

Clear-head time

  • Spend time deliberately not thinking about work – or anything much, for that matter.
  • Recharge your batteries – you can’t run effectively on empty.
  • Allow your subconscious to go to work on some of those knotty problems.

Holidays are critical. You need time to unwind and clear your head of the day-to-day clutter. Remind yourself what a good nights’ sleep is all about and the importance of family, reconnect with the important people in your life and have some “me” time. Holidays need to be long enough to make a difference: you’re not indispensable.

Every week, in fact every day, you need clear-head time. Weekends are so easily consumed with work, but not giving yourself a break means that you won’t be refreshed and raring to go on Monday morning. We can’t holiday every week, but we can find time to do something completely different, so that our work brain gets a rest. As the saying goes, “A change is as good as a rest.”

Remember the ash cloud of 2010, when flights were cancelled for days and weeks? Many business owners were trapped thousands of miles from home and work. But businesses carried on without them. In fact, many would have thrived without the boss. Staff love the opportunity to step up and take responsibility while the boss is away. Don’t feel guilty.

If you have never let your team make a decision without your confirmation before, then they never will be able to do so. In my early corporate life, I travelled a lot, usually in the car. My team must have had a sixth sense because as soon as I jumped into the car, the car phone always rang – one of my team needing to ask a question or wanting some help. Of course, I answered their queries and moved on to the next call to solve that problem too.

My epiphany came because I left my phone behind one day. I was so stressed about the office I stopped at a phone box; I’d been out of contact for most of the day and I thought it was probably chaos back at base. It wasn’t. My team was fine and because they couldn’t get hold of me, they made decisions and choices. All was good and they were proud that they had just got on with it – and so was I! That was probably one of the best business lessons I learnt early in my career: to set the team objectives and then let the team deliver, with me exerting a light touch rather than a heavy hand. From that day forward I was less available to the team, to its benefit. You need clear-head time and your staff will do fine without you.

Finding clear-head time can, on the face of it, be a challenge, but in reality it’s easy. Your day can incorporate it naturally. On the drive to and from work, turn off your phone and the radio, and think. In the shower or the bath, don’t plan and ponder: let your mind float. If life is really chaotic, get up fifteen minutes before everyone else, make a brew, and sit and think – don’t even consider turning the radio on. Walk the dog – or just walk. Walking is very rhythmic and you find that your thoughts relax and tumble about much more easily as the walking rhythm builds.

ACTION: Just get away from it all – clear the clutter that is clouding your mind – book a holiday, now! Don’t stop there; block out two more holidays. Try not to leave more than three months between them.

Shirley Mansfield
Master Business Problem Solver

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