On having time to think

If you work with Microsoft Outlook, you’ll be aware that its default setting is to scream for your attention every time you receive an email. Not only do you get an envelope displayed on screen, but also a sound and a notification window.

All this to let you know that you’ve received an email. No discrimination about what kindof email that might be — it could be from a mailing list you’re on; it could be spam; it could be a hugely important message from a key client. Of these three, I know which one I’d want to come with bells, whistles, and notification windows.

What I don’t understand is why it’s something you’d want for the other two categories. It seems to me to be guaranteed to detract from useful working time — not only in terms of the time taken for you to scan the notification and decide whether or not you want to deal with the email you’ve just received, but also the time it then takes to get back on track with whatever you were doing.

Turning off these superfluous notifications seems to me to be one of the best ways to get Outlook to fade into the background; to become a tool at your disposal rather than a nagging taskmaster. It’s worked beautifully for me, and it allows me to check my email when I want to, not when a piece of software dictates that I should.

This is a big part of getting enough time to think. Barack Obama recently said that “should we be successful, that actually the most important thing you need to do is to have big chunks of time during the day when all you’re doing is thinking”. While I’m certainly glad to hear that a candidate for the most powerful job in the world is aware of the need to set aside time for reflection and contemplation, I think it’s applicable to a lot more than just the presidency of the United States.

In fact, for any of us in the ‘knowledge economy’, I’d say that having some time to think is crucial. Without it, we are condemned to a life of being reactive to events, rather than being in control.

Setting aside thinking time isn’t easy, but I believe it makes the rest of your working time substantially more effective. This isn’t an easy thing to measure, of course, and everyone’s situation is different. But I can say with confidence that any decision I’ve taken after having had time to reflect on the subject at hand has been a substantively better decision than one made on the run.

It’s tempting to fall back on time outside work as thinking time. In a day full of meetings, interruptions, and Outlook email notifications, there’s something attractive about getting home, pouring a glass of wine, and sitting quietly to reflect on the day’s events.

The problem with this, though, is that it indicates an acceptance that there’s no room at work for reflection and thinking — rather that it’s something that has to be done on your own time.

Now, obviously it’s not possible to control your thought patterns to prevent thinking about work while you’re not at work … and it would be a shame to be able to do so. Some of my best work-related ideas have struck me on a quiet Sunday afternoon.

But there is a real advantage in firewalling some time at work to just think, too. At the very least, it’s important to make sure that there is some time in your day that isn’t already given away.

For example, I’ve had some real success in blocking out mornings (7am – 11am) every day in my calendar to make sure I don’t get booked into meetings before 11. Set up properly, so that your colleagues and direct reports know why you’ve made this change, this can be a very powerful way of freeing up some time in your day.

What it gave me was time to call my own. Not always alone time — some days it was best used in an impromptu discussion with one of my direct reports, or walking the floor to check in with different teams and people — but time that was mine to control. And on many occasions, this meant having a block of a few hours to close my door, switch the phone through to someone else to answer, and think.

And if you can’t make this happen, for whatever reason, then I’d say the next best thing you can do is to minimise the number of automatic distractions that fill your day. Dial back the email alert settings on Outlook; switch off the blinking LED on your Blackberry; turn off the Instant Message ‘new message’ sound — and buy yourself some time of your own.