Most leaders that I have come across are very happy and content when they are deep in the work generated by their business. They enjoy the day-to-day demands of their business; they look forward to interacting with existing or potential customers and relish the opportunity to spend quality time with members of their team. Where they are generally less comfortable is when you challenge them to spend time out of their business, on their own, working on the vision for the future of their business. They are in that respect exactly the same as 99.9% of the human population who gravitate to familiarity and the known knowns around them. We like watching films we have already seen as we know the ending will make us feel good, we like re-reading books we have previously read as we know they will put our mindset in a positive state, we repeat tried and tested exercise routines as we know we can succeed at these. Familiarity is our friend and safe place to exist.


The conundrum we need to solve

This familiarity is fine if you are comfortable with where you are at, but the conundrum for most leaders is that they have personal and business aspirations, which exceed the status quo. They desire more but find it difficult to move beyond the known or the familiar. The crux of the conundrum is that they don’t give themselves the space or the permission to get curious about the known unknowns let alone give themselves what they perceive as the luxury of exploring unknown unknowns.

 Without allowing or enabling this curiosity to be indulged the chances of ‘escaping’ the status quo are diminished. The conundrum can’t be exited or solved with more of the same. Without realising it leaders who spend all of their time working on the familiar and the known knowns are embedding the behaviour they need to avoid if they are going to realise their ambitions. As Albert Einstein famously said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it” Trying harder or working longer is not the solution, whereas trying something different and working less might just be the solution you are in need of.

 What I am advocating here is leaders giving themselves specific ‘thinking time’ to focus on the less familiar and the possibilities the sit within the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns. This is blue-sky discovery time with you, which is a scary concept to a lot of us. Doing less and thinking more. The logic being that you have plenty of people that can do a lot of the doing needed in your business and can probably do it at a very similar level to yourself if you have recruited right and trained them well. However you are the only one (or at least the one best placed) to do the initial thinking about what the future business could and should look like. You are the visionary and therefore you need to give yourself time to visualise uninterrupted. This is not a comfortable thought for the majority of leaders.

The reasons most of us are not comfortable are threefold:

(1)   Treat thinking time with the same degree of professional you would any other appointment

The first ‘mistake’ people tend to make is not seeing thinking time as being important enough to schedule and ring fence in their diary. In that respect they are starting on the wrong footing as they are subconsciously reducing it’s importance. By scheduling this time in the way you would do any other meeting or project you will be automatically increases it’s importance not only to yourself but also to anyone else who sees or has access to your diary. You will be clearing declaring that this is important and should be treated with respect both by you and others. In the same way you would think twice about cancelling a pre-arranged meeting, or time allocated to working on a project with a colleague, you need to give this time the same treatment. 

(2)   Find a different space which facilitates creative thinking

The second ‘mistake’ that can be made which unknowingly hinders the productivity of the think time is that we don’t identify a suitable location for this activity. We tend to squeeze this in between other office based or home based appointments which means this time is by default allocated the same location. The ideal thinking location is neither the normal work nor home location as both of these locations have too many distractions and are ones you use for ‘normal’ activities. If you want to give yourself the best opportunity to do some game-changing creative thinking you need to carefully choose locations without distractions that can inspire you. Thinking outside in nature whilst walking or performing other forms of exercises works for a lot of people, as the tranquillity of the surroundings allows you mind to wander more easily on to the what if’s and away from the noise of the norm and the familiar. But it can be a café or a hotel lounge; they work just as well. The important element is that it is a different location, which you will then over time start to associate with this different type of activity. Like Pavlov and his dogs you will condition yourself to performing the activity required (thinking) when the stimulus is present (the location).

(3)   Don’t be too focussed on short-term outcomes

The third ‘mistake’ that can be made here is a very logical one given the nature of the ‘business as usual’ work that dominates the rest of your week and that is to be too focussed on short term outcomes from this activity. We have become very conditioned (& have conditioned those we lead) to be always asking for and expecting outcomes, deliverables, results either delivered daily or at least weekly. We set up dashboards to monitor performances at the business, departmental and individual level and we judge progress via these dashboards. This way of measurement is not going to work for the type of activity I am encouraging you to partake here. There is going to be a non-linear relationship between the activity and the outcome and you need to get comfortable with that.

Thinking can be both a logical and creative process. Because there is a creative element we need to be OK with a different way of measuring progress or outcomes. Very few truly creative people like being tied to producing a piece of work in a certain format by a specific deadline, and bringing this type of rigidity to the process will probably reduce the quality of work produced. We need to trust that the creative process will achieve results over time but these results may not be in a ordered and pre-set pattern. Creative thinking is about shifting the way you see the world, imagining new solutions, and giving yourself the opportunity to think deeper about the existing scenarios. None of which is easy to measure as all of these outputs will maybe appear over time or come in bursts. You may feel after the first few thinking sessions that you are not producing enough tangible or shareable ideas to justify the time but you need to be comfortable with this and keep going until the new solutions, the new ideas and the new ideology has time to take shape. Like any new skill creative thinking takes time to master.

This is something you get to do rather than should do

One of the networking groups I am part of had an interesting discussion really about how the word ‘should’ gets in the way of productivity and enjoyment. By simply adding this to any sentence it turns it into an obligation rather than a potentially pleasurable activity. I ‘should’ write a new blog sounds far more obligatory and less appealing than I ‘get’ to write a new blog. Similarly I ‘should’ go for a run doesn’t generate the same level of enthusiasm as I ‘get’ to go for a run does. The same reasoning can be applied to the thinking time I am advocating.


Are you positioning this as an obligation?

  • I should write a 2021 strategy?

  • I should talk to our suppliers about new products?

  • I should do an update for our employees on post C-19 strategy?


Or are you positioning the same activities as an opportunity?

  • I get to spend time crafting an empowering vision for the next 3 years of growth?

  • I get to build deeper relationships with our key suppliers

  • I get to communicate directly with those at the heart of our business.


Thinking time allows you to become slightly more detached from the day-to-day operations, which enables you to have a different perspective and see things differently. It enables you to see the opportunity rather than the obligation


If not now then when?

Now more than ever we need visionaries running our businesses, those rare individuals that can see further than others, who can see possibilities in the confusion, we are all feeling. Now more than ever it is so important that leaders give themselves permission to spend time away from their business thinking through the challenges, the potential solutions and the opportunities that have arisen in 2020. It is not easy work, just you alone with your thoughts and a book of blank pages for a few hours, but it is needed work.

Being a reactive leader is no longer enough, the second half of 2020 requires you to be a curious leader who seeks to understand known unknowns. Committing to and then embedding thinking time into your weekly routine is stage one of this process.

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