My watch doesn’t keep very good time, and I like it that way. Its uncertainty keeps me from organizing my days too precisely. It gives me breaks – sometimes short, some longer – for unstructured thinking.
At the top of organizations, and particularly in younger companies, time for unstructured thinking is scarce. Yet, unstructured thinking is what spawns the breakthroughs that people expect us, as CEO’s, to deliver.
This is our work of the highest order. But building space for this kind of thinking requires a stance that counters certain pressures we receive from others about how we should spend our time and requires a different discipline for managing our days. Not difficult. Just different.
Here are five tips that will help you build time for unstructured thinking into your workday. And if you do it, you will raise your odds for delivering what others expect of you – the big ideas – even though some of your constituents might not see the connection as you start.
When I see a day of back-to-back entries on my calendar, I know that it won’t be a very productive one. Still, most of us fall into a trap of feeling most important and that we’re doing our job best when we haven’t got a minute to spare.
Do you remember the Eureka! story? After working hard on a problem, Archimedes drew a deep, warm bath to clear his head, release all thoughts and relax. As water spilled over the side, the answer he’d sought for days emerged. Eureka!
Tip: Be overly generous allocating time for appointments and leave comfortable gaps in between. End your appointments early and protect the gaps. Don’t use the time you’ve created to stuff in another call or talk with people. Use it to sit quietly and let your thoughts wash over you.
There is a lot devoted these days to teams and team effectiveness. Les McKeown’s recent book, The Synergist is a great one to read on the subject. But even Les sites the dangers of teams leading to least common denominator decisions. In effect, standing between the need for, and the origination of, bold ideas that reach beyond rather than just maintaining or improving current circumstances.
My best ideas, or at least the ones that seem best at their moments of emergence, often come to me in the shower. Not unlike Archimedes, when my head is clear after a good night’s sleep. In an unexplainable way, the solution to what I’ve wrestled with for days just arises through the lather of shampoo and conditioner.
From that point forward, however, my teams are great resources to help me reject, or build upon, refine and mobilize the ideas.
Tip: Start the day in your office with the door closed. Courteously let people know that part of your responsibility is to think deeply about your job and the company, and that you need undisturbed time to do it, before you start interacting with others.
Over a year ago, I grew concerned about the amount of time I was spending with emails that weren’t contributing to my performance as a CEO. I decided to categorize my inbox at the end of each day: helpful or not.
Within just a few days, I was astounded and embarrassed by the results. On average, I was spending over a half day a week with correspondence not directly related to the decisions I needed to make, the direction I needed to set or the example I needed to establish for my organization.
Tip: Ask people, again courteously, only to include you on the address line of emails they believe are directly important to the performance of your job and to CC you on all others. It will take time for them to adjust. So again, be courteous, but let them know when you’ve spent time reading something they’ve sent that was not helpful and that you may or may not choose to read the CC’s.
One of the most influential CEO’s I met early in my early career always carried a small, leather flip pad in his jacket or shirt pocket. From time-to-time he’d pull it out and quickly jot something down. Just a few words or a sketch that wouldn’t distract him at all from the conversation, the task of the moment or even from loosing eye contact.
Later he explained that his flip books were full of ideas that he didn’t have time to address at the moment but wanted not to lose. And that the greatest contributions he’d made to his company started in his flip book.
Tip: The Mark Cross brand of flip book that he carried, and I still do, isn’t easy to find now. But Moleskine and others make great substitutes. Get one, use it and glance through it at the end of every day. It might drive a eureka for you in the next morning’s shower.
Just say no
We’re all flattered to be invited to discussions with our teams, but like email, well-intentioned others will control your life, if you let them. In this instance, however, you’ll also be enabling them to rely on you more than they should and to coopt your support, which retards their own effectiveness.
Tip: When a colleague or employee invites you to join a discussion, simply ask, “Will this help me do what I need to be doing for the company, and could this event be done without me?”
Things that distract us from our most important roles in our jobs seem to be growing exponentially. Use these tips to regain time to think deeply about your highest and best contributions as a CEO – and to accomplish them.
Dick Cross has worked for more than 25 years transforming under-performing companies into powerhouses. Dick has been the Chairman, CEO, or President at eight of those companies, and has mentored more than 100 CEOs at others.