Budgeting Time to Think


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.

17 comments on “Budgeting Time to Think
  • I believe that productivity as well as emotional health would improve if we did take time to just think. Perhaps that was one of the reasons for recess in schools, i.e., taking a break from routine.

  • Good post. I agree that synthesis and reflection can occur during these off times (for me I notice it most in the shower and when I am home for lunch). But I think it is hard to make progress when the thoughts are going scattershot through your head, so I think it is important to take time to target your thoughts and reflection.

    The way I do this is by filling out a spreadsheet each night with general thoughts on the day as well as judgments of how I performed on certain metrics. I find this to be extremely valuable to remind me what is important and to keep me focused on those important things throughout the day. If you’re interested, I have a post scheduled to appear on this next week.

  • I agree that it is important to schedule time to reflect. One of the most productive off sites I ever attended included a number of speakers – after each of which, we took a five minute break. This time was explicitly for reflection and to jot down our reaction. At the end, we were able to have a highly reflective and informed conversation, largely due to the space and energy specifically dedicated to thought.

  • Introspective thinking while driving on the freeway seems dangerously close to daydreaming in a situation that should have your full attention.

    Surely it’s best to stay engaged with traffic– a running soliloquy on the idiocy of the human race in general (and lane hogs especially) always helps.

    There may not be much synthesis or reflection going on then, but there will be lots of “processing events and data”, like dodging the reckless pickup driver who nearly clipped you at eighty mph.

    Long stretches of open road in the desert on a moonlit night are another matter. Synthesize or reflect away.

    Go to Jamaica and any true Rastaman will tell you of the meditative virtues of ganja for serious thinking– the ritual and ceremonial aspect of conscious smoking gets the rhythmic beta waves going, and percussion-heavy music really accentuates the effects.

    Magic mushrooms or LSD are useful for serious introspective excursions into one’s psyche, if you don’t mind a heavy dose of some possibly uncomfortable Truth about yourself.

    But that’s one of the beauties of the psychedelic experience– it’s often the catalyst for a real breakthrough when you’re stuck in a psychic rut or all your neural circuits seemed to be jammed.

    Beyond using botanicals like marijuana or mushroooms to interact directly with the nervous system, I would say with Tim Leary (not everything he said was bullshit):

    “Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers that engage them.”

    I certainly reach a pleasant state of consciousness when a hot date disrobes in my presence.

    I’m not sure how ‘high’ that level of excitement is, but all the chakras have their place, and carnal pleasures can be exquisitely fine-tuned by set and setting.

    Insights into human nature or the meaning of your own existence probably come as often in the afterglow of sex with last night’s trick as they do in communion with a yogi in his Himalayan lair.

    I believe we have all eternity to think about it, and “the universe [really] is an intelligence test.”

  • Ben,

    This is one of the reasons I write. Not just on my blog, but in private documents. I find writing is thinking as a non-passive activity.

    While many people would find sitting and reflecting a waste of time, if you’re actively scribbling down thoughts in a notebook to plan for a new project or reflecting on a life situation, you are thinking deeply.


  • Funny that you’ve grouped reading and driving together. Whenever I’m in a creative-writing rut, the formula that always works for me is to read in the car, stare out the window for a bit, and then the ideas start coming like crazy. Of course, I need someone else to be driving or I need to drive the train. For more on “the formula,” go here.

  • Although there are many “kinds” of thinking, two categories stand out for me: directed and undirected. Some of the suggestions above, such as scheduling time to write, or organize – represent directed thinking. But thinking while driving, or running, or hiking (my favorite), or in the shower – that’s undirected thinking. I find that the most novel/creative output comes (albeit rather unpredictably) from the undirected thinking. But of course, any good ideas that come out of it have to be followed up with directed thinking.

  • Action vs Activity

    Action is what achieves our goals, moves our business and personal lives forward, produces what we want out of life and actually gets the job done. It is immensely rewarding but is also very likely to be difficult and challenging.

    Activity is all the things we fill our lives with in order to avoid taking action. Strangely enough activity often looks better than action to our colleagues or even to ourselves. If you are an executive or run your own business then productive, focused thinking must be one of your action priorities. Unfortunately thinking often appears to be “lazy”, compared to making phone calls, dealing with email, attending meetings and generally rushing around.

  • Have you read the book “the Best and the Brightest” by David Halberstam? There is an anecdote about someone actually scheduling a 5 hour block of thinking time, even though he was very busy.

  • Agreed.
    But just one thing. What if you ‘do’ actually mark time out to think?
    You start by first finding a topic. That ought to pop up easily, as you would want to think about things that are ‘on the top of your mind’, duh!
    I mean, seriously… think about it. Setting time aside to just sit/stand, stare into space/do nothing else/smoke/drink coffee, and think about whatever is important. Thinking not as a ‘by product’ of an activity, but finding relatively mundane activities for a by product of thinking. No? This exercise will at least help you find what’s important, to begin with.

  • Excellent point about reading, Ben. Very familiar with the driving paradigm. It’s a classic, especially as I’ve driven/ridden four hours a week last few years to see daughter on weekends.

    Reading is such an obvious invitation to reflection, and generation of the “next great idea.” Good point.

  • When I set aside time to think (which is scheduled for right after I post this comment) I go to a nice quiet place. Something inspiring. Maybe my room with allof my books, maybe the library or at a quiet area in a park and I whip out my journal and jot. Whatever is on my mind I address it on paper. That way gives me the most clearest way of thinking. I write at the top my question, problem or whatever, then I begin to empty my subconscious until my mind is cleared. I can’t think too well-rounded while driving, I have to think all-around an issue, and I can only do it by setting aside a chunk of time and journaling.

    Great post by the way

  • I never realized how much I used to think while driving until I moved to NYC and started taking the subway everywhere. At first I would always read something or write stand-up using my phone, but now I’ve realized sometimes it’s nice to just sit back, watch the people, and think.

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