Oswald Letter

Find quiet time alone to think

Timeoutby Dan Oswald

You don’t spend nearly enough time simply thinking. Before you take offense to that statement, consider how much time you spend talking, responding to e-mail, even reading—my guess is that you spend more time doing any one of them than you do thinking.

Why do so many people claim they have had some stroke of genius while in the shower? It’s because they’re alone with their thoughts for about 10 minutes without a phone, computer, or book. And according to those who have achieved more from a shower than just cleansing their bodies, that’s all it took for them come up with a great idea that’s going to make a difference. 10 minutes!

We’re stuck in a society in which ADD has become the norm. We can’t entirely focus on anything for more than short periods of time. We’re self-described multitaskers. We don’t do one thing at a time—we do two or three things at once. And we brag about it! We consider ourselves the models of efficiency.

We talk on the phone while we drive. We read a book while we exercise. We respond to e-mail while sitting in a meeting. We even play games on our phones while watching TV. We’re connected to our devices 24/7.

I’m on a plane as I write this. It used to be that when you were on a plane, you could choose between reading, talking, sleeping, or thinking. Today we have our computers, tablets, and phones. We’re disappointed, as I was this morning, when we discover our plane isn’t equipped with Wi-Fi—how dare they get in the way of my efficiency?! I’m 30,000 feet in the air and upset that I can’t check my incoming e-mail.

I have a colleague who thinks he could make a living helping executives disconnect from technology. My guess is he would have a hard time convincing businesspeople to give up their smartphones and computers—let alone pay him to do it. For many of us, it would be like having a limb amputated! But maybe, just maybe, this boot camp for the overly connected could be sold to their spouses and children as an intervention tool. Oh, that’s right—those family members are all sitting at the dinner table with their own devices.

And what gets lost in all of this connectivity is the time to simply think or reflect. Each day we are confronted with an unbelievable amount of information. Got a question? No sense thinking about the answer. It’s quicker to find it by conducting a Google search. The answer is right at your fingertips—literally!

So how much uninterrupted time do you spend each day simply thinking? I’m willing to bet it’s not much and certainly not enough. You need time to digest all the information you access using that technology. You need to find a way to avoid those things—both self-inflicted and caused by others—that interrupt your ability to find quiet time to think.

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Close the door to your office for 30 to 60 minutes each day. Turn your phone ringer off, shut down the computer, and turn off your cell phone. Don’t sit at your desk because you’ll be tempted to pick up a report or something else and start reading. Place an empty pad of paper and a pen in front of you, and just think about some of the issues you’re facing. Pick one particularly perplexing problem and focus on it for the entire time, jotting down any ideas that come to you. If you don’t have an office door, book a conference room. If you don’t have a conference room, go for a walk. Anything that takes you away from all the things that distract you from the problem at hand.
  2. Don’t multitask when you exercise. If you’re on the treadmill, turn the TV off. If you’re riding the stationary bike, don’t read a book. If you’re in the pool, leave the waterproof earphones behind. Years ago, when I was running a lot, I would go out by myself without any technology. It provided a fantastic opportunity to think through whatever issues I happened to be dealing with. It’s great that you’re exercising, but double the benefit by spending that time thinking instead of distracting yourself with something.
  3. Take 30 minutes either first thing in the morning or last thing at night to be alone with your thoughts. So often we busy ourselves with things to do from the minute we wake up in the morning until we turn off the lights at night. Most of us either watch TV or read in bed until the lights go out and we fall asleep. Then we wake up in the morning already on the run. How fast can you get showered, grab coffee, and get to the office where all those distractions are? Instead of rushing out the door to get to the office, how much could be accomplished by simply being alone with your thoughts. Or instead of watching late-night TV until you fall asleep, lie there and consider everything you’ve done and learned that day.

It really doesn’t matter how or where you do it, but you must find ways to take the time to think. If not, you spend your entire day doing and reacting, without much thought to the value of those activities. Your actions should be intentional and purposeful. For that to happen, you must take the time to be alone with your thoughts, work through issues, and contemplate the best course of action. You need quiet time to allow that to happen.