How Busy People Find Time to Think Deeply

(Originally published on LinkedIn, where there are 300+ comments.)

During the first presidential campaign Michelle Obama was worried her husband’s schedule allowed him “no time to think.” You hear the same from business executives who traverse impossibly packed days.

But how many people budget serious thinking time on their calendar? Few. After all, what would you actually do during time set aside to just “think”? Sit in a chair, stare straight ahead, and ponder the world?

Indeed, it’s not a challenge you confront head-on. As Alain de Botton says, “The mind may be reluctant to think properly when thinking is all it is supposed to do; the task can be as paralyzing as having to tell a joke or mimic an accent on demand.”

If you want to do more proactive, deep thinking, you want to obliquely engage in two kinds of activities.

Directed Thinking Activities

Write. Famed author Joan Didion says, “I don’t know what I think until I try to write it down.” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos preaches the value of writing long form prose to clarify thinking. Unless you’re a professional writer, writing is not always about the written output; it’s about the thinking that happens as you attempt to communicate. Do not assume you have to share your writing with others for it to be time well spent.

Read a book. Don’t read an executive summary or two-page cheat sheet. Read a full book. It’s not about the content of what you’re reading — in most business books, there’s not much new anyways — it’s about the quiet time you’re spending by yourself. Unless you’re a professional book reviewer, reading is not about reading; it’s about thinking. It’s about hearing yourself think.

Undirected Thinking Activities

“Undirected” thinking time involves activities that are themselves minimally mentally taxing, and conducive to creative thinking about other things.

Drive to and from the office. Driving a familiar route = good thinking time. “When Joan Didion moved from California to New York, she realized that she had done much of her thinking and mental writing during the long drives endogenous to the Californian lifestyle,” Steve Dodson once noted. I’m the same. I can’t tell you how many decent thoughts I’ve concocted in my head while driving on the 101 or 280 freeways in the Bay Area.

Take your dog for a walk. Same as driving, but safer.

Take extra long showers. You’re free from distraction, you’re engaged in a monotonous activity that doesn’t require active focus, and you’re in a different environment. Sounds like the perfect place for a creative thought.

Stare out of airplane windows. Travel journeys of any sort are the midwives of thought. “Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than moving planes, ships, or trains…Introspective reflections that might otherwise be liable to stall are helped along by the flow of the landscape,” says Alain de Botton. On the topic of airplane windows and thinking, I always call to mind this picture (right) of Bill Clinton, having a moment.

Organize your office/room/house. Tidy up documents, pick up around the floor, rearrange books. It’s an excellent foil to serious thinking.


When do you find time to think deep thoughts amid the day to day chaos of professional life?

(Photo credit: Flickr)

13 comments on “How Busy People Find Time to Think Deeply
  • Thanks for this post, Ben. Failing to ensure time to think is something I’ve been worried about, but have admittedly not spent too much time deeply pondering, thus forming a rather nasty self-perpetuating habit.

    What is your take on the frequency of which these activities elicit deep thought? I’ve often found myself writing, reading or taking walks, but still struggling to maintain a substantive level of reflection.

    • I haven’t thought about frequency in a serious way, but I think the “need” depends on a bunch of factors. Sometimes I need more time to do this than other times, based on what’s going on in my life at a given time.

  • I like to refer to these chunks of time devoted to thinking–and not much, if anything, else–as “pure activities.” By that I mean activities you can engage in that the rest of the world will totally understand when you don’t multitask or pick up the phone.

    You hit on some of my favorites: driving (better: riding a bike), walking, showering, or flying (although for many of us that is rather rare). I second Stavros comments about jogging and add that working out can be some of the most peaceful time of my day–especially during cardio training.

    The key to all of these is solitude. Almost any activity can become a pure activity if you are alone. The real challenge, however, is forming a life where it is okay to be alone for certain periods of time. For many of us, that is a challenge. We have significant others, children, friends, and a whole host of other things that often keep us around people 24/7.

    Just carving out the alone time is a big step.

  • Massage & swimming are good time to think. Sometime going to a classical music concert or art museum also works, but that’s probably harder to fit into a busy schedule.

  • Liked this post a lot. I agree with the traveling, particularly bus or train. However, my best thinking is done mowing the lawn. It’s repetitive, I’m getting some exercise, there is nothing to distract me and I don’t have to make any decisions.

  • Ben,

    Great post and I loved the visual recap of “The Start-up of You”, I will be buying that book. As an avid reader (with a learner strengths in my Gallup Strengths profile), I agree with your suggestion of reading as a way of deep, reflective thinking. My best time is when on a long airplane trip, I can go into “deep thinking” mode and write out notes, long-form on my Levenger Circa notebook with my favorite fountain pen. In this ADD world full of everyday distractions and multi-tasking, making and taking time for focused, deep thinking is a game-changing necessity for the start-up of you!

  • I’m a bit mystified by the allusion to the “day to day chaos of professional life”, as if chaos is the norm.

    I would think that “chaos” should be an aberration.

    In addition to the worthy suggestions made here, much deep thinking and problem solving can be done in a night of good, restorative sleep.

    Also, there are convenient tools for dealing with shit.

    A good jolt of LSD can help restore general mental clarity and one’s focus on what is truly important in life, and a draw on some nice purp will do the trick for here and now.

    See, Beppe Grillo understands this.;-)

  • I couldn’t agree more. The scarcity time mental frame that unknowingly the fast paced technology has put us under, redirects out the real timely fashion that a day should be and feel like.
    Everyday more we seem to have less and less time for evrything and into “doing” thinking has been left out of the equation.
    One thing that has worked out for me is actually waking up a little earlier and sip coffee slowly just wondering out the window. My mind seems to wonder off to the things I have been forgetting or simply putting off. It is said that the process of thinking is a question-response process. Hence the better questions you learn to make yourself the better answers you will come up with. Socrates said “an unrevised life is not worth living”. So yes. Let’s take some time to think a bit …it will help us do a lot more, with more efficiency and in a shorter period of time. I’ll think about this tonight!

  • Walking the dog sounds so simple but their are SO many benefits for the “you” time (and fido of course). You get the fresh air, nice vitamin D if it’s during the day, the natural sounds, and best of all the alone time with you and your mind. It’s invigorating and therapeutic.

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