Too Busy To Think: 6 Ways To Create More Space

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When I was young my school teacher gave me this advice:

“Practice makes perfect”

He suggested that if I were to become good at anything – sports, career, or counting cards – then I would need to practice, practice, practice.

This seemed logical at the time. I mean, who was going to argue with Mr Robins?

Yet nowadays I wonder if this was overly simplistic.

Does practice alone make perfect?

 

Practice and Sport

Imagine this.

You’re a keen tennis player and have fifteen minutes left at the end of your weekly lesson to work on your serve.

How will you maximise your time?

Option 1.

  • Hit as many serves as possible for the next fifteen minutes. In other words, practice again and again, doing more.

Option 2.

  • Hit just a few serves and then spend the rest of your time analysing and thinking about your stroke.

Both approaches take the same amount of time.

Both are logical.

Yet which approach will maximise your Federer slice serve for that big game?

Whether a tennis fan or not, this dilemma is surprisingly common for you and I — we come across it every day at work and in life.

 

Practice and Work

Is this familiar?

It’s 8am on a Monday morning and another week has begun.

Your calendar is stacked with meetings. That big deadline is looming. And a bunch of new emails have already arrived in your inbox.

What is the best way to use your time?

Will you dive straight in and plough through as much work as possible? Or will you hold back for an hour to reflect on your priorities and to plan your week?

This is a moment of choice.

When stretched for time, most people tend to drop thinking and planning in their calendar to complete as many tasks as possible. According to a Finnish study of 1500 office workers, 70% of employees do not plan their week.[1]

Yet like the tennis player who practices again and again without reflecting, is this really the best way to work?

 

Does practice really make perfect?

When pressed for time, is it better to a) do more tasks or b) reflect on your work before moving into action?

Harvard research team, led by Giada Di Stefano[2] tackled this question in 2014. They recruited people to complete several mathematical brainteasers and financially rewarded those who performed best.

To prepare for this experiment, each participant was given a choice to either:

a) Practice lots of brainteasers for 3 minutes, or;

b) Do a puzzle and then spend 3 minutes thinking and reflecting on their performance.

Practice makes perfect doesn’t it? Well, it seems that most people think so — 82% chose to practice as many puzzles as possible, whereas only 18% traded practice time for the opportunity to think.

And the results?

Thinking + doing (the 18%) outperformed the rest of the crowd, hands down.

“If individuals themselves are given the choice to either reflect or practice, they prefer to allocate their time to gaining more experience with the task — to the detriment of their learning.”  — HBR research team —

Doing lots of stuff might feel more productive because you seem to be moving forward.

Yet stopping to think, as a compliment to doing, leads to far better results.

 

Too Busy To Think?

“I’m too busy to plan my week. I know it’s important, but I just can’t find time.”

Ever thought this before?

As a productivity coach, I meet leaders and managers at all levels who struggle to stop and think. They feel time pressured each day and therefore respond by doing more and more.

This might seem productive, but in the long run it’s self-defeating.

Like the tennis player who stops to analyse their serve, or the mathematical wiz who reflects on a brainteaser, the best performers at work and in life are those who prioritise time for intentional thinking.

They brew on ideas. They stop to think. And they outperform in life.

 

Build New Habits For Intentional Thinking

As a husband, father, business owner and non-profit leader, I take thinking very seriously.

I consistently guard time in my calendar for thinking, planning and refreshing, and consider these times to be sacrosanct.

Here are some daily, weekly and annual rhythms that I have developed over the last few years to keep me afloat… even in the busy times.

Daily Rhythms:

1. Daily Exercise — research shows that exercise makes you smarter, more alert and more capable of learning new things. It literally grows your brain by maximising brain health.

I intentionally choose forms of exercise that maximise my ability to think. These include riding to work (visualising my day in advance), swimming (counting time, not laps, so that I can think) and exercising at the gym (listening to podcasts to learn new things). By starting each day with activity, I usually enter the day feeling fresh, focussed and clear about my daily priorities.

2. Daily MIT’s — that’s lingo for Most Important Tasks[3] (thanks Leo Babauto!) Each morning, I make a mini-plan (10 minutes) to review my to-do list, my email action folder and my calendar, to determine my 3 most important tasks for the day.

These don’t have to be big tasks… just important one’s. For me, this habit functions like a mini-retreat (before I check my email). I get to think about what I’m doing and understand what I need to achieve for today… all before the storm hits.

Weekly Rhythms:

3. Weekly To-Do List Planning — every Sunday night I plan my week. I review my calendar, update my to-do list, determine and then schedule my priority tasks for the week.

This rhythm ensures that I’m intentional and proactive in how I approach my life. It forces me to plan a next step on hard-to-move projects. It helps me to stay organised and feel more in control. I don’t necessarily do any tasks during this time… it’s just a space to think, plan and clarify my priorities for the coming week.

4. Weekly Digital Detox — each Saturday I down tools and take a digital detox. I intentionally disconnect from my devices (Smart Phone, iPad, laptop etc.) in order to find space to reconnect. Counter-intuitively, whenever I unplug from technology for a day, I find that I enter the week refreshed and recharged. I feel less busy and think more clearly. To find out more, here’s Why I End Each Week With A Digital Detox.

Seasonal Rhythms:

5. Silent retreats — once a quarter, every Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring, I dedicate an entire day to practice contemplative thinking.

During this time, I walk along the beach and think about whatever happens to have my attention at the time. Sometimes I drink a coffee at the local cafe in silence. I also walk around a garden (that I hire for the day) with my journal and reflect on where I’ve been, where I am now and where I want to be. This helps me to recalibrate, to clarify my goals and to unblock challenges or opportunities across my life.

6. Family holidays — as a principle, I book my holidays before I book my work. For example, I begin each year by booking at least two family retreats before any client gets an appointment in my calendar.

After 5 years these retreats have become habit. My family rents a beautiful shack by the sea, surrounded by cows and bushland. My mind quiets down as I stoke a wood-fire, relax in an outdoor bath, amble along the beach or play hide-and-seek with my kids… all without access to the internet. It’s great for my family and great for me. The routine helps me to slow down and think.

 

Stop Doing And Get Thinking!

Thinking and reflecting is not an hors-d’oeuvre to compliment the main meal. It’s meat and potatoes.

Even the busiest people are more productive when they carve out space in their calendars to stop and think.

Research shows this. Experience backs it.

Practice + thinking = perfect

Think and reflect before you start doing and you’ll make space and be productive.

Question: Tell us about your habits for intentional thinking!

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. According to a study of 1500 Finnish workers, 70% of office workers do not plan their week –  https://hbr.org/2012/09/three-ways-to-think-deeply-at-work
  2. Stefano, G.D., Gino, F., Pisano, G. & Staats, B. (2015). Learning By Thinking: Overcoming the Bias for Action through Reflection, Harvard Business School, Working Paper, 1-39.
  3. Babauta, L. (2009). The Power Of Less: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself the Essential, Hyperion Books, New York.
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