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Ben Casnocha

March 12, 2013 by Speakers' Spotlight

How Busy People Find the Time to Think Deeply

Celebrated entrepreneur and author of My Start-Up Life and the Start-Up of You, Ben Casnocha recently shared his thoughts with readers of his LinkedIn column:

During the first presidential campaign Michelle Obama was worried her husband’s schedule allowed him “no time to think.” You hear the same from business executives who traverse impossibly packed days.

But how many people budget serious thinking time on their calendar? Few. After all, what would you actually do during time set aside to just “think”? Sit in a chair, stare straight ahead, and ponder the world?

Indeed, it’s not a challenge you confront head-on. As Alain de Botton says, “The mind may be reluctant to think properly when thinking is all it is supposed to do; the task can be as paralyzing as having to tell a joke or mimic an accent on demand.”

If you want to do more proactive, deep thinking, you want to obliquely engage in two kinds of activities:

Directed Thinking Activities

Write. Famed author Joan Didion says, “I don’t know what I think until I try to write it down.” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos preaches the value of writing long form prose to clarify thinking. Unless you’re a professional writer, writing is not always about the written output; it’s about the thinking that happens as you attempt to communicate. Do not assume you have to share your writing with others for it to be time well spent.

Read a book. Don’t read an executive summary or two-page cheat sheet. Read a full book. It’s not about the content of what you’re reading — in most business books, there’s not much new anyways — it’s about the quiet time you’re spending by yourself. Unless you’re a professional book reviewer, reading is not about reading; it’s about thinking. It’s about hearing yourself think.

Undirected Thinking Activities

“Undirected” thinking time involves activities that are themselves minimally mentally taxing, and conducive to creative thinking about other things.

Drive to and from the office. Driving a familiar route = good thinking time. “When Joan Didion moved from California to New York, she realized that she had done much of her thinking and mental writing during the long drives endogenous to the Californian lifestyle,” Steve Dodson once noted. I’m the same. I can’t tell you how many decent thoughts I’ve concocted in my head while driving on the 101 or 280 freeways in the Bay Area.

Take your dog for a walk. Same as driving, but safer.

Take extra long showers. You’re free from distraction, you’re engaged in a monotonous activity that doesn’t require active focus, and you’re in a different environment. Sounds like the perfect place for a creative thought.

Stare out of airplane windows. Travel journeys of any sort are the midwives of thought. “Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than moving planes, ships, or trains…Introspective reflections that might otherwise be liable to stall are helped along by the flow of the landscape,” says Alain de Botton. On the topic of airplane windows and thinking, I always call to mind this picture (left) of Bill Clinton, having a moment.

Organize your office/room/house. Tidy up documents, pick up around the floor, rearrange books. It’s an excellent foil to serious thinking.