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Reclaiming Time to Think

I am a big believer in lawn chair thinking. The expansive, blue sky imagining that can take place on summer holiday sitting by the lake, by the pool, or simply somewhere nice. For a moment a space is opened up in life and there is time to contemplate.

I also greatly appreciate the thinking that takes place under the conscious surface of the mind when we are otherwise occupied with other tasks and which announces itself with a “eureka” splash and at other times with a gentle slide into awareness “ahh”.

Margaret Wheatley, a leading writer and thinker about leadership has described the power and importance of thinking:

As a species, we humans posses some unique capacities. We can stand apart from what’s going on, think about it, question it, and imagine it being different. We are curious. We want to know “why?” We figure out “how?” We think about what’s past, we dream forward to the future. We create what we want rather than just accept what is. So far, we’re the only species that does this.
[Margaret Wheatley, Turning to One Another (p. 96)]

The challenge we face in this world of electronic communication, short fuse deadlines and high expectations is that the time and space for imagining, questioning, and contemplating is being lost.

Wheatley asks:

When was the last time you spent time reflecting on something important to you? At work, do you have more or less time now to think about what you are doing? Are you encouraged to spend time thinking with colleagues and co-workers, or reflecting on what you’re learning?

For most people I believe the answer is that we have less time than ever for reflection. This recently came to light in a 2012 survey of Canadian in-house counsel. Counsel were asked to list their top challenges. The biggest challenge was not enough time for big picture thinking:

“The day-to-day workload leaves little time for ‘big picture thinking’ or the development of initiatives that would benefit the organization as a whole.”

This experience of little time for big picture thinking is becoming the norm in the legal profession and beyond.

What is being lost? I would guess that the answer to that question could go on for pages. Immediately I think of the lost opportunities for improving our organizations, for learning and developing, for becoming better advisors, team members, and leaders.

I also think we lose sight of our personal priorities. And once these are lost we start making decisions based not on what is most important to us but instead on what seems like the most immediate need.

As a coach my practice is founded on providing clients with time and a place for contemplating their big picture, and envisioning what they want to make happen. The power of coaching can be said to come from this simple act of reconnecting people with their wisdom and creativity. But you don’t need to hire a coach in order to access your best thinking.

The first step is to make a conscious decision to reclaim thinking time for yourself. Make it a priority. No one is going to give you this time, you have to determine to take it back.

Here are some approaches to try out:

  • Keep a journal. Schedule time every day for writing down your thoughts.
  • Schedule time for reading thought-provoking material. Jot down the ideas that arise as you read.
  • Frame the question you wish to contemplate. Take the question with you on a walk, or to the gym, and let it percolate in the back of your mind.
  • Assign yourself a thinking project. It might be thinking about what are your top priorities and how you are honoring these? Or, what can you do to become a better delegator? Or, what can my I do to provide outstanding value to my client? Schedule regular meetings with yourself for this project and honour these commitments. Take notes and move your ideas into action.
  • Collaborate with thinking partners. Engage in conversations about challenges you are facing or opportunities that are opening up. This can be really effective for those of you who like to think out loud.

My colleague and I regularly establish thinking projects. We determine an area of our work that we want to improve and we take action to research, think, develop recommendations and take action. We weave these projects into the day-to-day work load, we schedule time to research and think independently then we come together and share our thoughts. The result is a powerful collaboration and improved processes and systems.

Don’t wait for someone to give you some time for thinking. Instead, take the opportunity this summer to bring big-picture thinking back into your life. Create thinking projects, schedule time for them, find collaborators, make recommendations and take action.

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