If you had nothing but flour and water to eat, you would survive for a while. But combine this flour and water and make it into bread and you would be nourished for a lifetime. This is a paraphrase from the amazing Netflix documentary Cooked, by food journalist Michael Pollan. And it’s the best metaphor I’ve found for why I’m slowly, deliberately, defiantly trying to make my life less busy.
Too much of a non sequitur? Ok, let me go back. If you eat nothing but flour and drink nothing but water, you will get a few nutrients and survive for a short time. If you combine flour and water and leave them to capture the naturally occurring yeasts and microbes in the air and then bake that sticky dough into a loaf of bread, and eat that bread, you could survive indefinitely. The air converts raw ingredients into something truly alive and nourishing.
For many years, I’ve had amazing raw ingredients. I get to work with so many teams in so many different industries and locations. I work on strategy with high tech firms and I teach leadership skills to bankers. I read and read and read the latest news, and research, and musings. There has always been plenty to work with, there just hasn’t been the time to bring it together and let it bubble and bake. I was subsisting on flour and water.
I knew for a long time that I had a problem. I did my best to create the conditions for creation in my old life. I had a strict rule of not looking at my phone in taxis. That gave me at least an hour most weeks to think. Then I would get up every Saturday morning at 6:30 and write while the house was quiet. I relished trips to Boston with my former boss because it provided 48 hours of almost constant inspiration. But those moments were few and far between.
For the last eight months, it’s been so much different. I build hours of thinking time into my week not just minutes. I sit and have breakfast with my iPad. I read the Fortune and Guardian daily emails. I find something interesting on Facebook or LinkedIn and bounce from link to link for about 15 minutes. I walk my daughter Mac to school at least a couple times a week. The 15 minutes on the way reminds me what it’s like to view the world through a 10 year old’s eyes. The 15 minutes home give me the chance to reflect on any insights from the previous day’s work and extract an idea for the post I’m going to write.
The biggest boon to the intellectual fermentation has been my decision to walk anywhere I can. I’m fortunate to live close to the city centre, so any meeting under 5 miles, I walk to. If I’m in a rush, I’ll walk half way and take the subway the rest of the way. The only embarrassing part is looking like Mr. Rogers as I change my shoes when I arrive.
Last weekend, I spent about 10 hours gardening. I don’t really like gardening, but I really like thinking. I’ve learned that the best thinking happens when your body is doing something like walking or gardening. I’m still trying to make sense of yesterday’s epiphany about weeds versus plants—you’ll probably see that in an upcoming post.
I don’t set out to think about anything in particular, I just make space for myself and have the confidence that all the necessary ingredients are already in the bowl, and they just need the air.
Although the rewards to my health, my stress, and my fitness are worth it alone, the benefits to my work are what I was after. Here are a few that I’ve noticed so far:
- It’s easier to come up with things to write about. I write 2 posts per week for this blog, two advice columns a month for a client, and one article a month for HBR.org. That’s about 12,000 words a month so it means a lot in terms of productivity when those words come easily. I believe my thinking time strategy saves me about four hours a month in writing time.
- I provide more insightful advice. When I’m facilitating a session, I’m really focused on generating the best conversation and then landing the plane on time. Craig is the one who is watching the conversation unfold and looking for opportunities to help the team members internalize the key messages. So once we’ve had a chance to debrief, it’s fantastic for me to have some time to noodle the next steps. I’ve noticed that my clients are calling more often and looking to use me as a sounding board. I suspect that’s because my thinking is clearer.
- I come up with product ideas. The future of 3COze will include a product business where we make some of our ideas and tools available to people who aren’t in a position to pay top dollar for a facilitator and a coach. This is an entirely new business model for us, so I have to step back from everything I know to learn a whole new mindset and skill set. Once I started clearing the decks, there was space for this new way of thinking.
Try a thinking sabbatical
You’re probably thinking “oh sure, sounds good for her, but I can’t quit my job to go walkabout!!!” Let me reassure you that I haven’t stopped working. Not even close. I’m still having meetings to win new work, assisting several teams, giving keynote speeches, and always, always writing. It’s the time in between tasks that I capitalize on—and you can too.
How about trying a thinking sabbatical. I found that it took two full weeks of my new approach to see the first green shoots of new ideas. So here’s my challenge to you:
- For the next two weeks, declare yourself on a thinking sabbatical
- Liberate a minimum of six hours each week to expose yourself to air
- Count only chunks where you get 45 minutes or more of thinking time
- As much as possible, do something outside and physical while you’re thinking
- Eliminate all unnatural input. If you’re running, don’t listen to music, if you’re driving, turn off the radio. If you’re on a plane, no movie, no newspaper!
- If you have to get up earlier to make it work, get up earlier for two weeks
- If you have to bank two episodes of Game of Thrones and go for a walk instead, do it
You’re subsisting on flour and water. Your work, your ideas, your leadership aren’t as good as they could be. Give them a little air and see what magic happens. [And do yourself a favor and watch the Michael Pollan Cooked documentary series!]