15 Ways to Find More Time to Think

By Paul B. Brown | Small Business

Everyone could use more "white space" during the day. Here's how to find it.

One of the smartest entrepreneurs I know, a man who is generally positive and upbeat, was complaining.

He had just offered one of his senior people a substantial promotion--and raise--but it would mean the employee would have to move to the other side of the country, uprooting his wife and their three teenagers.

"My employee asked for a week off to think about it," my friend said. "A week. Geesh. What's wrong with doing your thinking right here?"

I think my friend is in the minority. He is wonderful at thinking about the big picture while handling all the day-to-day stuff simultaneously.

Most of us are not that talented. We could use a little "white space" in our lives that we can fill with new ideas.

Let's talk about the 15 ways you could carve out more time to think, ideas suggested to me by some of the most successful entrepreneurs I know.

1. Simply deciding to do it puts you ahead of the game.

Most of us never take the time to realize we could use some time to think.

2. Breakfast could be the most important meal of the day.

One entrepreneur I talked to has taken to getting up earlier and is in his local coffee shop by 5 a.m. He says he always buys a newspaper, "so I won't look even weirder than I am," but he spends virtually all of his time just staring into space. "The key, I find, is not to distract myself with things like checking email or voice mail, or making 'to do' lists," he says. "I just sit and think."

3. First things first.

Intriguingly, others I talked to also tried to carve out thinking time early in the day. But they do it before breakfast. Typically, they said, the first thing they used to do was check email and skim the headlines. Now, they are putting that off, until they have spent some time thinking about their most important objectives.

4. Simplifying.

Stress and needless distractions ("Where the heck did I put that file?") detract from your ability to think. Each of the people I talked to said they were taking steps to become even more organized. One of the ideas I particularly liked: creating an agenda for the following day--with all the necessary supporting materials at hand--before they turned off their computer at night.

5. Talking out loud.

This one particularly resonated with me, because I do it all the time, to the puzzlement of my wife and kids. I talk to myself and others do, too, when they are trying to reason things out.

6. Reinstating the lunch break.

Because we are busy, there is a natural tendency to work through lunch, or to grab a quick sandwich or salad at your desk, if you are not meeting with a client. Successful entrepreneurs said that even 30 minutes away from the office in the middle of the day often spurred new ideas. Intriguingly, many said eating alone triggered new ideas.

7. Relaxing before taking a break.

Coming up with ideas in the shower, or while taking a nap, really does seem to work, according to the people I talked to--although they were quick to add a twist. They said the best ideas came to them when they weren't stressed. "If I am worried about something, that's all I concentrate on in the shower," said one woman. "Now, I try to be stress-free before I step into the tub. It doesn't guarantee I will get a new idea, but it seems to increase my chances."

8. Shake up your routine.

I found this one interesting. One of the reasons people say you are able to generate more ideas in the shower is because the task of showering is so routine. Since you do it by rote, your mind is free to wander. No one I talked to disagreed with that theory, but they said they noticed that they got more and different ideas when they were doing something out of the ordinary, such as seeing a movie in the middle of day or taking a break at an unexpected time.

9. Exercise.

Many people said they did their best thinking while exercising. The kind of exercise itself didn't matter, but running and biking were the two things mentioned most often.

10. Building in a break.

Within a five-minute drive of her house, one of the entrepreneurs told me, is an upscale gym and a place where "I can grab something healthy to eat. I have made it a point to budget an hour a day to take advantage of both places, and I refuse to check email or voice mail during that time."

11. Fly first class.

People used to say they used their travel time up in the air to think. But with packed planes and smaller seats, that option has become more difficult. One option: Fly first class whenever you can, said one of the men I talked to. "It's about equivalent to what coach used to be about 30 years ago," he said. "I find it helps."

12. Schedule it.

I have my doubts about this one, but several people I talked to swear by it. They block off 15 minutes every day--in the middle of the day--that is labeled "Thinking" on their calendar.

13. In praise of dead cell phones.

"I would have never believed this one if it hadn't happened to me," one of the people told me. "I was driving to a client meeting four hours away and my cell-phone battery died and I didn't have a car charger. After about 20 minutes--20 long minutes of panic and withdrawal pain--I came to appreciate the fact that I was not about to be interrupted. I am still not great about turning off my phone for long stretches, but I try."

14. Silence in any form is seen as good.

Lots of entrepreneurs prize the moments--whenever they occur in the day--when they can simply block out noise.

15. The old ways still work.

I was curious, so I asked about the idea of taking some time off--a long weekend, perhaps--where you tried to do nothing but contemplate what's important. Everybody I talked to endorsed the idea and then promptly said they can't remember the last time they did no work over three consecutive days.

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