Time to think

LET’S THINK back to our childhoods for a moment.

If you’re a person of a certain age, say over 40, you grew up in what many might call a simpler time. After school, we’d rush home to do our homework so we could play outside with our friends. We might ride our bikes around the neighborhoods, or play kickball, or blind man’s bluff.

On Saturdays, we were more ambitious, building forts in the woods. We might even kill some time by prostrating ourselves on the ground to look for shapes in the clouds. And when we got bored and whined to our mom—she was generally at home—she told us to either go play outside or read a book. So we did.

Younger adults have grown up in a different world. Their world has been more programmed for them. Whether they took lessons or played organized sports of all kinds, they have had little time for imaginative play. For many of them, free time meant video games of some sort. Televisions were their babysitters.

We seem to have created expectations that no one has time to be bored.

Thirty years ago, when I first began to fly somewhat often for work, I remember thinking I needed to remember to bring a book to read on the plane. It was either read, talk with my neighbor, or stare out the window during the flight. So I actually would do some of each of these activities. I met some amazing people, read some interesting books, and did a lot of thinking, mostly about work, while on airplanes.

Have you flown lately? No one talks with each other anymore. Look around and you’ll find people wearing headphones or earbuds so they can either listen to their own music or watch the airplane’s video screens. It might shock some to know those video screens were found only on international flights 30 years ago.

On a recent flight, people were watching sports, movies, and TV shows, and some were playing games. It’s like we feel we must fill our time with activity, as our children do.

So how does this relate to business?

I’m concerned that we don’t take time to think. Our personal lives are so frenetic and we feel like we have to go, go, go at work at the same pace. How in the world can that be good?

There’s so much going on at work that we need time to process what we’re hearing and learning. As a manager, for sure, but definitely as a leader, how can you make good decisions about your unit if you don’t make time to be bored? We fill up every second on our calendar, it seems, either with scheduled meetings or reacting to unexpected events. We don’t have time to think. And thinking is important.

I told someone recently that I love to attend conferences. While the content I am exposed to is generally valuable and stimulating, one of the two primary reasons I love conferences is because I am not at work in meetings and reacting to what walks in my door.

I find myself actually thinking about my organization and how we can improve or do something new. But my few conferences a year don’t give me enough time to stare out the window and think.

So I’m going to schedule “thinking time” on my calendar. And that’s what it’s going to say. In order to be productive while I think, I will need to get away from a computer, as those little “dings” every time an email hits my inbox are a distraction. If I don’t carve out thinking time at work, I will continue to take my personal time to think. We all need to be able to leave work behind when we go home.

Can we return to the simpler time of our childhoods? That’s doubtful, but I do hope we can remember that having every hour or minute programmed at work is not healthy for either ourselves or our organizations. I’m going to try to give myself more time to think. What about you?

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Lynne Richardson is the dean of the College of Business at the University of Mary Washington.

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