During the campaign Michelle Obama was worried that Barack's schedule allowed him "no time to think."
You hear the expression a lot. But how many people actually budget thinking time on their calendar? You don't often see:
9:45 – 10:00 AM: Meet John Doe
10:05 – 10:20 AM: Conference call with team
10:20 – 11:00 AM: Meeting with client
11:00 – 11:20 AM: Think
11:20 – 12 noon: Meet with direct reports
Even if you had "thinking time" on your calendar, what would you do during that time? Sit in a chair, stare straight ahead, and ponder the world?
Because for some that would feel unacceptably unproductive, people usually do the kind of thinking Michelle was referring to — synthesis, reflection, processing events and data — while actively engaged in something else, albeit something that's not too taxing.
Driving is the most popular activity of this sort. Driving requires some level of attention, but you have plenty of cycles to think about other stuff, especially if you're driving a familiar route. "When Joan Didion moved from California to New York, Didion realized that she had done much of her thinking and mental writing during the long drives endogenous to the Californian lifestyle," Steve Dodson notes. I'm the same. I can't tell you how many emails and plans and conclusions I've come to while driving on the 101 or 280 freeways.
Reading is another activity that can be specifically scheduled and invites the kind of reflection and catch-up thinking that we need. It's for this reason I've long been puzzled by those "book summary" services where you buy a two page cheat sheet to a book. After all, it's not just the ideas in a book that matter; it's the time you allocate to reading.
Bottom Line: "Thinking time" usually takes place indirectly during activities such as driving or reading. We should schedule those activities accordingly.