Time to think
Managers just don’t have time to think. Caught in an endless whirl of meetings, presentations, targets and travel, the one thing that gets squeezed out completely is thinking time. There are, of course, a couple of glorified thinking sessions each year, such as annual strategy off-sites, which provide some respite. But even these sessions are full of fancy strategy frameworks and starchy group work, all of which eventually constrain free-ranging thought.
Curiously, many of us in the corporate world also avoid deep thinking, because this appears to be difficult work. It is far easier to focus on linear, familiar activities such as chasing monthly sales targets and participating in busy review meetings. And, of course, the easiest and laziest way out is to sub-contract thinking to consultants, many of whom then think as they think you want them to think.
In the absence of a good management training programme that teaches us how to think well, we put on our thinking cap to bring you a primer of how you can create thinking time for yourself. Give these simple suggestions some thought.
Early bird gets the thought
Arrive half an hour early in office each day. Do not switch on your computer and begin responding to emails because this will hijack your mind immediately. Instead, pick up a hot cup of coffee or tea, the caffeine stimulates the mind. Sit back in your chair, and think about one significant opportunity or issue facing your business or team. Put down your thoughts in a notebook, or, if you are digitally inclined, on your tablet. Think at leisure, write down the pros and cons of each course of action. Stop when you wish to, and continue the next morning. At the end of this session, reward yourself with another hot beverage, and, powered by your thoughts, begin your daily routine.
Commute with your mind
Whether you commute to office by train, bus or taxi, or whether you are chauffeured in your car, commute time is invaluable thinking time. Think of your seat as a thought cocoon, far away from the regular grind. When you are on the move, your mind has the licence to roam freely, without interruptions. Use this time to read, because reading a relevant piece can trigger your thinking in ways that you cannot always imagine. Look out of the window at the world passing by. I find this creates a very relaxing canvas for big-picture thinking. Use the commute occasionally to telephone someone whose advice you really value.
Immense value of useless meetings
All of us know that some meetings in office are totally useless. Yet we are compelled to attend them, either out of protocol, or because our team has to be represented, or because the big boss expects you to be there. In such meetings, sit in the last row or in a back seat. Take your notebook with you. Use this entire time to think about any subject that is important to you, and make notes of your thoughts. Let others imagine that you are taking active notes from the meeting in progress, this can win you some brownie points for diligence as well.
Get yourself a thought partner
Sometimes, the best thoughts emerge through informal discussion and debate. Not the formal strategy sessions involving a large team, just intense conversation with a couple of colleagues, on the subject at hand. This can happen if you develop a “thought partner” in your team or office. Someone with whom you can spar intellectually, who can challenge your ideas, and also add to them. Have lunch at least once a week with your thought colleague, and try to pick an interesting conversationalist and thinker as your partner. It also helps to have a partner who has different background or training yet is a member of the team to which you belong, that helps bring common knowledge and uncommon perspective. Most important, however, is the chemistry of free-flowing professional conversation, that’s what makes the magic and the thoughts come alive.
Half a day to think
If you can, leave half a day of each week free of all meetings. Typically, a Friday afternoon or a Saturday morning can work best. This is easier said than done because it requires discipline, as well as some serious cooperation from your colleagues. Use this time to read something you have always wanted to catch up on, or drop into the offices of a few interesting colleagues who generally have a point of view. Or visit the neighbourhood coffee shop, and ruminate over a cup of coffee on the week that has gone by, and some areas of work that need a revisit. For some people, the pleasant surrounding chatter in a coffee shop can trigger their own thinking.
Walk, cycle or run
Great thinkers and poets have waxed eloquent about the stimulating effect of a solitary walk through the forest, or by the seaside. Many leaders use similar walks or runs to come to difficult decisions which require intense thought. This can work for all of us too. Find a nice park in your city to walk in, or jog in. Cycle to work, if your town permits you this luxury. I find cycling on the roads of Mumbai impossible and life-threatening, but stationary cycling at my gymnasium gives me similar time to think. And, of course, once in a while, put on your sneakers and head out for a walk on the nearby hills or seaside.
Learn to say No
If you have to create valuable thinking time for yourself, you have to learn to say No to the zillion requests for meetings and conferences that reach you, and which are not truly important. Ask yourself, is this meeting essential or incredibly useful to my life and career? Let your answer speak for itself, and, over time, the rest of the world will know and accept you as this kind of person. Not an easy course of action to pursue, but one that will yield wonderful results. When you say No to the superfluous, you say Yes to thinking.
Harish Bhat works with the Tata group. His new book is titled The Curious Marketer. He has discovered that his best thinking time is when he sits down to write. So, he writes every Sunday morning, and then celebrates with chilled beer at lunchtime, which stimulates his thinking too.