Thanks to everyone who read and replied to re-runs of the most popular Friday Forwards over these past few weeks, allowing me to spend some fully present time with friends and family.
Over the years, I have consistently noticed that I get many new and different ideas when I travel away from home and get out of my regular routine. I used to believe that one of the reasons for this phenomenon was that a different venue or culture offered me a change in perspective. However, upon reflection, I think the real driver is that taking time away allows my brain to more easily access creative thinking mode, as it’s being asked to do less on an hour-to-hour basis.
Our brains tend to operate through two systems, one conscious and active, the other subconscious and automatic. For example, breathing, walking, driving to a familiar place and blinking are things we have done so many times that they don’t require much cognitive capacity: these functions run on autopilot.
But while these basic but critical functions require little cognitive effort, many other tasks we do each day leverage the active system in our brain. These tasks include learning new skills, listening closely to someone speaking, participating actively in a meeting, answering emails or even scrolling through social media.
During these activities, we usually lack spare capacity for free thinking or brainstorming. I found this to be especially true at one point on my recent vacation, during a rush hour drive from London to the English countryside on the left side of the road, which required so much active attention that I was exhausted afterward. I would have felt very different had I been driving on the right side in a familiar area.
As you might expect, many of our best insights and breakthroughs come during more automatic tasks, when the active part of our brain is free to work on creative solutions, problem solving or new ideas. This is why so many people have epiphanies in the shower, or why taking a walk can be the best way to brainstorm when we’re stuck on a problem.
Having time to think quietly over the past few weeks produced several professional and personal breakthroughs and important ideas that seemed to come out of nowhere. I found myself constantly filling my journal and blank pages of hotel stationery with notes, and in many cases, when I reviewed those notes weeks later, I had totally forgotten what I had written down. Some of the notes included lightning-in-a-bottle type revelations that likely never would have happened had I not created the space, and that would have come and gone had I not stopped to write them down.
Having worked with many coaches over the years, I have heard the suggestion that leaders, and especially CEOs, should carve out a few hours each week to sit silently with an empty notebook in a location outside their office, such as a coffee shop. Initially, I thought this seemed counterproductive to getting things done, but I’ve come to appreciate the value of giving yourself this mental space and freeing your mind from any other active tasks. In these moments, your brain can focus where it’s needed most.
After seeing the results from the past few weeks, I am committing to make more time to do this type of thinking in my regular routine.
I think we fail to appreciate how our overbooked schedules and hyperconnected lifestyles hijack our available brainpower. These constant demands for small amounts of our attention have a real cost to our ability to think deeply and strategically.
It’s really amazing what our minds can do when we give ourselves the time and space to think proactively and not reactively. When was the last time you gave yourself more than an hour of uninterrupted thinking time?
Quote of The Week
“Sometimes answers come to you in ways that only you can understand. That is why it is so important to have a clear mind to receive and understand the message.”
–Sheila M. Burke