Thinking time: Why it should be essential in every workplace
Setting aside time to think is vital for good decision-making and keeping your sanity
Entrepreneurs are typically good at stepping off the treadmill to spend time thinking. File photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto
Returning from holiday might seem like a good time to knock the cobwebs off your career plan or to confront some of the elephants in the room at work. But be careful what you wish for. What seems like the right thing to do when you’re sitting comfortably by the pool in sunny Spain may look very different when you try to implement it on a grey day in Ireland.
Change may indeed be what’s needed and we’re more likely to be up for it after a break. However, business coach Pamela Fay, who has helped people weather work-related crises for more than a decade, advises resisting the post-holiday impulse to be vigorously proactive and to pause for thought.
The key words here are “pause for thought”, and there’s the rub. In Fay’s experience, thinking time has become a scarce commodity. Elevated levels of anxiety and stress are the result of people not having enough time to process the constant stream of information coming at them.
“Big changes such as rearranging a team, implementing a new strategy, getting used to a new boss or deciding to resign are all major events that need to be thought about for a period of, maybe, up to six months.
“That might sound like a long time, but, in fact, things usually take a lot longer to happen than we think and we need time mentally to prepare the ground,” Fay says.
Being perpetually busy has become a modern-day phenomenon and organisations are often guilty of focusing on activity because thinking sounds flaky. But it’s essential in rapidly changing business environments and smart companies to ringfence thinking time because it leads to better decision-making and provides a space in which new ideas can flourish.
Entrepreneurs are typically good at stepping off the treadmill to think, while it is well documented that LinkedIn boss Jeff Weiner schedules two hours of uninterrupted thinking time a day. Executives at AOL are asked to spend 10 per cent of their time (about four hours a week) just thinking.
Microsoft’s Bill Gates is another example of a high-flyer for whom thinking time was essential. In his case, it was two weeks a year in a secluded location to contemplate his company’s future uninterrupted.
One tip from an executive who flies a lot for work is to travel alone to get personal thinking time, as travelling with colleagues means talking, usually about work.
In 2006, Michael Porter and Notin Nohria of the Harvard Business School began a longitudinal study of how a group of CEOs managed their time. In 2018, they published some of the results of the 60,000 hours worth of gathered data. Their research shows that CEOs spend about 60 per cent of their day in face-to-face interactions, 15 per cent on the phone and dealing with correspondence and the rest on electronic communication.
What thinking time they had was usually fragmented into blocks of less than an hour, which is not considered long enough to be meaningful.
“I know of managers who have to go to a hotel for a few hours just to get time to think in peace, and if that’s what it takes, then my advice is to do it,” Fay says. “Overload is a big issue and people need time to work things through or they can end up in panic mode.”
Because of the many work and life pressures eating into our thinking time, one of the most common things Fay sees is people who are feeling very overwhelmed. This puts them in a tailspin as they try to deal with everything from worrying about their mortgage to managing a difficult team or boss, being sidelined at work or trying to meet tough business targets.
Finding the time to hit the pause button can be a challenge in itself, which is where something like executive coaching can play a role in providing legitimate time out.
“At one time coaching was seen as something offered to underperformers: now it has become an integral part of the culture of high-performing organisations and teams,” Fay says. “Coaching gives people thinking time for the here and now. It is about moving forward, not delving into the past.
“It’s also about providing support, particularly at very senior levels where people are leading teams or organisations and often making big decisions alone. I think most people benefit from taking conversations ‘out’ of their head and saying the words out loud, where they may sound very different.”
Fay’s role is not to direct. It is to lead and to give people the quiet space they need in which to unravel often complex situations for themselves. One of the advantages of talking to a coach is that, unlike a colleague or family member, he or she is independent. They have no personal attachment to any of the issues or any of the decisions made and their aim is the best possible outcome for their client.
As well as getting out of the office to think, Fay also advocates engineering some personal space – a brisk walk, a sea swim, meditation – to give the brain a rest. She also believes stepping outside one’s comfort zone is a good way to break the slog cycle. White-water rafting anyone?