If you are not thinking, who is?

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This fall I was training for my 22nd half marathon. My goal was to break my personal record, and after coming back from an injury, I had been training hard for months. Running is an outlet for me. It helps me feel physically strong and grounded. It gives me time to think and reflect. I get my best ideas on runs. I do a lot of writing during my runs and am most mindful. In final weeks of training, I had a long run of two hours scheduled. I had a list of things I wanted to think through on the run. I had carefully curated a playlist designed to motivate me when I was likely to drag. I was ready.

I stepped outside and it was a beautiful fall day: crisp, cool, and sunny. The scent of leaves and apples hung in the air. I turned on my music and started running. I noticed leaves flutter in the breeze, the light dancing across the top of the water of the lakes, and the sound of my feet creating cadence on the pavement. I could feel it; this was going to be a GOOD run.

About 25 minutes into my run, my music cut out. I fiddled with my earphones thinking the wire was sensitive. No luck. I tried restarting my phone. No luck. With each thing I tried, my unease grew. My greatest challenge when running isn’t physical – it is mental: preventing my mind from sabotaging my run, telling me it is time to walk, stop, or get a pastry. I still had 90 minutes left to complete. Without music. By myself. I finally gave in and accepted that I was going to have to run without the music. 

That is when a funny thing happened. My mind suddenly filled with answers to questions I had at the start of the run. I realized I hadn’t been thinking in those 25 minutes because I was distracted by the music. Clarity set in and those 90 minutes flew by. It was a gift my music cut out. If it had been playing, I wouldn’t have heard my inner voice or any of the insights. I wouldn’t come up with ideas and solutions to my questions.

I feel my headphones were meant to die to teach me a lesson. Sometimes we need to find a way to quiet things down to hear what is inside of us. Even though my intention that day was to set out and do that very thing, I was the one who prevented it. How many times do we do things that distract and prevent ourselves from the very necessary thinking time? We set aside thinking time only to put it aside when distracted by an urgent request, Instant message, text or email.

A former GE leader would tell leadership groups he spends 30% of his time thinking. Beth Comstock recommends spending 10% of your time each week thinking about what’s new, what’s next and how to adapt. You may think “there is no way I can ever free up that much time from ‘doing work’ to give it to thinking.” Here is the thing: if you aren’t thinking as a leader, who is? If you aren’t intentionally reflecting on lessons learned and thinking about the future, who is? Thinking is key for growth and to develop forward-looking strategies. Thinking is also critical to determine what to stop doing.

There is a lot of recent research on mindfulness in leaders and associated the benefits. This article from Forbes highlights the importance of leaders carving out and protecting thinking time. “If you can’t find time to think, it probably means that you haven’t organized your team very well, and you are busy putting out little fires all the time.” Thinking time provides reflection necessary for growth. It allows for creativity, which only narrows in reactive environments. It creates mind-strength, which is how you regulate emotions, manage thoughts, focus on self-improvement and prepare for inevitable obstacles.

We know the importance of this but setting it into regular action seems especially difficult. How do you stop “doing” long enough to start “thinking?” How do you keep your inner voices free from judgment to hear your thoughts and gain perspective? Research has a variety of suggestions, but all agree on one thing: cultivate a daily practice. Whatever you do, intentionally set aside a few minutes each day. The recommendations are consistent – block your first 15 minutes of the day. Before you go into email, get on the phone or start responding to texts – set aside time every day. How you spend this time can vary based on what works for you:

  • Read a professional article

  • Reflect with different questions. These can be about the previous day or week – or about leadership style. What went well – and why? What did you learn? What would you do differently? Who is the best leader you worked for and why?

  • Journal: practice morning pages – or my version of them

  • Meditate: leverage free resources to help you cultivate your own practice

  • Take a walk outside in nature

  • Color: it’s not just for kids – get an adult coloring book and crayons or pencils

The leaders I know who regularly do this are more intentional in their roles and their development. Their days are just as hectic as everyone else’s. But this daily practice allows them to maintain control. They approach their day and the challenges calmer and more focused.

As for me, I did complete my 22nd half marathon. Not only did I break my personal record, I now go out for runs and leave the headphones at home.

How do you intentionally build thinking time into your day?