Why smart leaders protect thinking space, and how you can, too


We don’t make good decisions when we are in a state of overwhelm. 
Wall of analogue clocks showing different times
Image source: Getty Images

According to a recent productivity study, the average full-time worker spends up to 12.5% of their average workday on low impact activities and unnecessary meetings where no meaningful communication takes place.  I was surprised at how low this statistic is, as wasting time in meetings, given other studies, show executives spend up to 23 hours per week in meetings.

So let me ask you this … how do you feel when a meeting gets cancelled?  If you are like many, you feel an instant state of relief.  A whole hour (or more) that you can use to play catch- up with.

But why would you be at the mercy of others?  Why not protect that time yourself every day in the form of a “meeting” with yourself or simply protecting time.

Blocking this time doesn’t mean you do nothing. It gives you the space to think and make decisions about what needs to be done.   Giving yourself this space shifts your attention from reacting to what has to be done right now, urgently, to being proactive and planning ahead.

Deep or slow thinking, a phrase coined by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, has been a necessary part of leadership. Recent events, including the global pandemic, have meant greater levels of uncertainty and unforeseen challenges.

Many of us are connected 24/7 and “busy” is a standard response to the “how’s work” question.  We have less and less time to just ponder, think or reflect.  Or as Einstein called it, do thought experiments. 

Richard Branson has for a long time been a fan of taking time out.  In a recent LinkedIn article he reminded us that we don’t make good decisions when we are in a state of overwhelm.  Being aware of, and taking advantage of opportunities, will not be available to you if you are not making space to think.

But you don’t have to only trust Branson.  Here are four other leaders who believe thinking space is critical to their roles:

  • Bill Gates – twice a year he retreats for seven days.  He refers to these as “Think weeks”.  In that time, he reads, researches, ponders and thinks about some of the problems and issues in the world and how they might be solved.
  • Warren Buffett says,  “I insist on a lot of time being spent, almost every day, to just sit and think.”
  • Arianna Huffington encourages employees of her company, Thrive Global, to take “thrive time” for when people have been going longer hours, and to take time and space to rest and rejuvenate, knowing that when people do that, they can bring their best productive and creative selves to work.
  • John Donahoe, President and CEO of Nike, takes a day off at least once per quarter regaining focus to enhance his performance as a leader
How to create thinking space
  1. Block a meeting out with yourself or protect and hour a day.  Many of my clients refer to this as “purple patches”. They colour code them in their diaries so that others know to do their best not disrupt this time.  If an hour is too much, start with 30 minutes.  Build up the habit.
  2. Start out by reading articles that provoke thought, insight or foresight.
  3. Use some of the time to reflect on your team and their needs. 
  4. If you are having moments of stillness and thoughtfulness, keep a notepad/book nearby in case ideas or thoughts pop up.

Like any new habit, it will take time to become natural, and as Robin Sharma, author of The Monk who sold his Ferrari, says,  “Making time to think is a brilliant strategy for success at leadership and in life.”

Donna McGeorge is a best-selling author and global authority on productivity. Her book series, It’s About time covers meetings, structing your day, and doing more with less. Find out more about Donna at Donna McGeorge: Speaker, Author, Facilitator, Coach