There's been a lot of chatter lately about feedback vs. feedforward. Words matter. I don't…
Back in the days of pen and paper and interoffice memos, I worked with a university president who had three boxes on his desk: one said In, one said Out, and another Too Hard. Too Hard problems have always been “Too Hard,” but the confines of that 8.5” x 11” metal box at least set limits.
Now, we spend whole days (and nights and weekends) digging out of our Inboxes. Sent email has replaced the Outbox, and the Too Hard to-dos expand infinitely into the Cloud.
How do we even begin to wrap our heads around this amount of work?
Georgetown University computer science professor and author Cal Newport describes this state of distraction-free concentration when your brain is functioning at its best as Deep Work.
To me, Think Time and Deep Work are a mix of focused thinking and mind-wandering that allows for the kind of problem-solving, creativity and innovative mindset needed to tackle those Too Hard problems.
Here are six ways to leverage Think Time, and one thing to do when a problem still seems Too Hard.
1. Block Think Time On Your Calendar And Hold That Time Sacred
“My advice is that you schedule in some ‘Think Time’ [on your calendar], and hold that think time sacred. Let people know that they cannot ever schedule over it. Get really, seriously angry if they try. Encourage everyone on your team to do the same.”
It’s helpful to block time when you have energy for focused thinking; I try to do it in the morning when I know that I have more brain cells (and coffee).
I leave the afternoon for tasks that require less heavy “mental lifting,” or what Newport describes as Shallow Work.
I like to use Google Calendar’s Focus Time tool to block this time on my calendar; it reminds me — and my colleagues — of my commitment to the Too Hard stuff.
2. Get Moving to Jumpstart Think Time
Luckily everyone talks to themselves with their Airpods on these days so my solo musings don’t seem so out of place.
Much like a blowing breeze that brings the birds into sharp focus on my windy-day walks, movement helps clarify our thinking. Kim described this in a recent podcast episode as “clearing out the cruft” — removing anything that’s redundant; taking out the mental trash.
According to the BBC, walking also helps as it “distracts the brain from more cerebral tasks, and forces it to focus on putting one foot in front of the other and not falling over.”
Technically this is called transient hypofrontality — when activity in parts of the brain related to memory, judgment and language is “dialed down,” allowing a different type of thinking to emerge.
Walking helps us get out of our own way. Kim builds walks into her calendar every day and doesn’t take phone calls while she is walking. So build some movement into your process — either before or during Think Time, to get things … moving.
3. You Say Tomato, I Say Tomato, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Small
You can always start small. I like the Pomodoro method*, which helped me write the first draft of my book.
- Decide which problem you’re going to work on.
- Set your timer for 25 minutes — it can be a kitchen timer if your phone is going to set you off on a scroll-a-palooza!
- Work on the task for 25 minutes, with no distractions.
- Take a five-minute break after 25 minutes.
- Repeat three more times.
- After four tasks (Pomodoros, or tomatoes in Italian) you can take a longer break, say 20-30 minutes.
*It’s called Pomodoro after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that Francesco Cirillo used as a student. Sorry if you are now craving Italian food (I know I am.)
4. Remove Distractions During Think Time
According to a 2010 Harvard study, about 47% of the time our mind is either in the future or in the past. The science removed much of the shame I felt that “I should be able to concentrate better.”
When I realized that it was natural that I would be drawn to my smartphone for its reliable dopamine hit — not to mention that it was designed that way — it helped me have a bit more compassion for myself and gave me the motivation to practice attention training.
To make it easier for myself, sometimes I turn off WiFi to make sure I complete the project I’ve chosen.
It also can be liberating to pull out a notepad and do your thinking in a different location than your computer, using pen and paper.
5. Engage Success Partners
As we navigate the exhaustion and burn-out of what feels like the third year of 2020, it’s also a great way to feel connected.
Cameras off, microphones off, just knowing that there’s someone else out there working on their “hard things” gives me a lift.
It’s especially important when many employees — and half of CEOs — report feeling lonely in their roles.
6. I Wonder: The Benefit of Mind-Wandering
The year after getting my MBA, I spent a year writing Harvard Business School case studies. The joke was that every case started with our protagonist “gazing out at the window” as they reflect on the intractable problem the case was going to address.
Turns out it’s not just a cliche. There’s a real benefit of looking out the window – it improves our attention and performance and makes us more productive.
What matters when it comes to mind-wandering is to be intentional about it so you can cultivate the kind of positive constructive daydreaming that leads to the a-ha moments that unlock the Too Hard. It also happens for me when I am in the shower.
I’m not alone; some 72% of people get creative ideas in the shower. Scott Barry Kaufman, a cognitive scientist, notes in Business Insider, “The relaxing, solitary, and non-judgmental shower environment may afford creative thinking by allowing the mind to wander freely, and causing people to be more open to their inner stream of consciousness and daydreams.”
The good news is you can take shower time if you’re still working from home, just be careful how open your window is.
When All Else Fails, Leverage Your Committee of Sleep
Back when I was first learning algebra, I remember being introduced to an equation that made no sense. Polynomial, exponential, logarithmic — I don’t remember, but I do remember how hard it seemed.
So I did what usually worked for me: I kept thinking about it and thinking about it and thinking about it. I huffed and I puffed but could not blow this equation down.
A few days after I was first introduced to the equation after I had given up trying to figure it out, I woke up one morning and realized, much to my surprise, it all made sense. I don’t know the exact mechanics of what happened.
There’s a famous story about how Thomas Edison would nap sitting in a chair holding a metal ball. He’d fall asleep and in that state of relaxation, drop the ball and wake up. This would help him find a new solution.
Other famous “micro-nappers” are said to include Salvador Dali, who did this with a heavy key; and Albert Einstein, with a spoon in his hand and a metal plate beneath it.
Recent research validates what Edison, Dali, Einstein and Steinbeck knew. People who napped and were interrupted during the first phase of sleep were three times better at solving the math problem than those who remained awake.
“Our findings suggest there is a creative sweet spot during sleep onset,” says author Delphine Oudiette, a sleep researcher at the Paris Brain Institute.
“It is a small window which can disappear if you wake up too early or sleep too deep.”
See if you can add that small window between sleep and waking to support your overall Think Time process. If your boss is wondering why you’re napping on the job, just tell them you’re doing what Einstein, Edison and Dali did.
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