A room of one’s own: How leaders can create time and space to think

Natasha Bonnevalle
December 14th, 2020
Article by: Natasha Bonnevalle
A room of one’s own: How leaders can create time and space to think

According to a recent study by researchers at Harvard Business School, compared to pre-pandemic levels, employees have been attending more meetings, sending more emails, and working significantly longer days.

In addition, under the current conditions, many of us are surrounded by our partners, family members, children, and other housemates 24/7. A quiet commute, solitary lunchtime break, or end-of-day silent office all seem a thing of the past. For many of us, time alone in stillness to think is more important and yet more difficult to find than ever.

How can we, even under today’s challenging conditions, make time for thinking?

The power of slow, deep thinking

Ninety-one years ago, Virginia Woolf published her essay “A room of one’s own.” While construing a piercing argument for both a literal and figural space for women writers specifically, she makes a universal case that having a room of one’s own, where one can be in solitude with no practical interruptions, is the key to achieve something of creative value.

In business too, leaders need to create time and space to be away from it all. Although evidently not to write works of fiction, their roles do demand that they bring clarity, insight, and wisdom to the issues they are facing. By giving themselves space for deep thinking they can work on solving complex problems, making sense of new contexts, and crafting sensible responses to internal or external events.

When we think deeply, we can bring ourselves to examine underlying assumptions, reconsider existing knowledge, draw connections between apparently disparate pieces of information, and reflect on long term implications. Deep thinking is a powerful antidote to the mechanical application of conventional approaches to new situations.

This type of thinking, also described as “slow thinking” in the book by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, is very different from “fast thinking.” Fast thinking is enabled by the more primitive reflex brain: it thinks instantly and operates from the here and now. It uses instinct, patterns, analogies, and biases. We need it when we drive our car or solve a simple calculation. Slow thinking, on the other hand, is enabled by our reflective brain. It needs to be prompted and activated. Slow thinking is negatively correlated with fast thinking: when one mode of operation is “on”, the other necessarily is “off.” 

Deep thinking has always been important, but it is even more critical in today’s environment. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to long-term market uncertainty, accelerated digital disruption, altered the way we work and live, and brought a multitude of unforeseen challenges as well as opportunities. In a crisis of uncertainty such as the pandemic, the number of unfamiliar and high-stakes decisions has multiplied – and so should the time leaders spend thinking these through.

how leaders can create time and space to think
By giving themselves space for deep thinking, leaders can work on solving complex problems and making sense of new contexts. #creativeleadership #leadership Click To Tweet

Defying the narrative of productivity

Deep thinking doesn’t happen in the odd moment in between meetings. Getting our brains in the right mode for this type of thinking requires a prolonged period of distancing oneself from day-to-day activities, rapid information processing, and focus on execution. Leadership expert Ronald Heifetz has offered an interesting metaphor in this regard: he urges leaders to get off the “dance floor” in order to take a “balcony perspective.”

Before offering a few practical tips on what you could do, let’s first examine what makes it hard for us to step into our very own “thinking room.”

Many of us are deeply affected by the narrative of productivity. We believe that as long as we are in the midst of action and of active contributions, we are performing. We measure ourselves, relentlessly, by comparison with everything that hasn’t been done yet.

In many organizations, from senior executives to new hires, there is cultural pressure to put in long hours, which researchers have discovered often serve as a proxy for both loyalty and productivity. In addition, in many cultures, being busy has become a symbol of status. Choosing “idle time” is seen almost as a character flaw.

And so, by taking time out from answering emails, producing documents, and attending meetings, we risk feelings of shame. By giving up “producing,” we stand to lose a particular identity.

And so the challenge becomes a personal one: am I willing to redefine what it means to be loyal, what it means to be performing – even if it means standing out from the crowd?

how leaders can create time and space to think
Let us not limit our leadership by being solely engaged in doing and as a result narrowing the brilliance of our minds. Make time to think. #leadership #timetothink Click To Tweet

Three tips to practice deep thinking

Once we have overcome these important underlying barriers, we can work with some practical tips:

  1. Set your best time to think. Many of us spend the best hours of our days in meetings or in execution mode. Even a small amount of time set aside each day to think about important, but not urgent aspects of our work can make the difference. Put “thinking time” in your agenda, but put it during a time of day when you know you are in your best shape – and protect it fiercely.
  1. Find the “room” that works for you. Some of us do our best thinking sitting down while closing our eyes. Some of us play music. Some of us need to move. Walking is a great way to engage our brains. There is interesting research out there on how walking actually helps us think. And some of us don’t do well thinking inside, but need to be outside, in nature. Decide on your best “thinking environment”, make an effort to actually seek out your special place, and do what works for you.
  2. Make your own question library. Ideas and answers will rarely simply appear to you. Questions, and especially divergent ones, can be a source of stimulus and inspiration. Find the questions that work for you, make a list, and keep adding to it. Go back to your “question library” and pick those questions that resonate with you when thinking through a specific challenge. Here are a few questions to get you started.

As the world of work continues to evolve and technology is set to play a bigger role in how we operate, uniquely human skills will grow in importance. With automation and artificial intelligence expected to reduce the share of employee time spent on fast thinking and acting, developing your capacity for slow and deep thinking will be a great asset. 

In her essay, Woolf wrote, “there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” Let us not limit our leadership by being solely engaged in doing and as a result narrowing the brilliance of our minds. Make time to think.

Learn to find the time and space to think to be a better leader. Join THRIVE: Lead With the World in Mind.