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Take Time to Think About Work

Take Time to Think About Work

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates observed. And it’s much the same for our work: If we can’t take time to reflect on our labor and where it’s taking us and our employers, the value of our toils can’t reach its full potential.  

But enough with the philosophizing. How can we possibly take time to think about the process and product of our work when we have five meetings coming up, 37 items on today’s to-do list, a client on speakerphone and a cellphone that always seems to demand attention?

Indeed, finding time to think, or making time, we might say, requires a creative act of reflection. So please, take a few minutes of uninterrupted time -- even just sitting in your car in the driveway when you get home tonight -- to think about how to think about your work life.

Overcome External Barriers to Thinking

A few of us are fortunate enough to work for companies that place a premium on introspection and self-motivation. Google famously gives its engineers “20 percent time,” the equivalent of one day a week, to think deep thoughts and work on their own projects.

But for the vast majority, a benevolent version of playing hooky may be required. “Schedule a meeting with yourself, and use this time for thinking, strategizing, streamlining and learning,” says Peggy Duncan, author of Put Time Management to Work and Live the Life You Want. Mark down an hour or more in Outlook, and don’t share the details with your colleagues.

The best location for a meeting with yourself is anywhere offsite. But if you head to a cafe or the like, choose a place where coworkers won’t be, and be sure to power down all your telecom equipment.

Are you so tethered to your desk or controlled by your boss that this meeting with yourself is impossible? Then you’ll have to grab an hour out of your own time.

“Many of us have our only quiet time when we’re heading off to sleep,” says Rob Bennett, author of Passion Saving: The Path to Plentiful Free Time and Soul-Satisfying Work. “Just the act of putting the notepad on the bedside table will send a message to your brain to start coming up with thoughts about your career shift.”

Internal Obstacles to Introspection Just as High

Suppose you’ve masterfully arranged this meeting with yourself. The hard part isn’t over, because now you’ve got to get yourself to think about the big picture of how you do your job and why, how you can improve processes and products, and where you want your labors to take your career. If you’re not careful, you may find yourself reverting to crossing off items on your to-do list.

“Let’s partition the brain,” suggests the anonymous author of the Rands in Repose blog. “One half is the creative brain, the source of inspiration. The other half is your reactive brain, which loves it when the sky is falling, because it goes to move so gosh-darned quick.” So you’ve got to keep turning away the demands of your reactive brain and refocusing on the big picture.

What makes some folks better than others at reflection and imaginative planning? It’s partly a matter of being so well-organized that when it’s time to think about the big stuff, you have very little anxiety about the little stuff.

“Use external cues such as computer reminders, to-dos and clock alarms to help you remember everything,” says Duncan. “This will free up your brain for thinking.” Of course, to be prepared for the meeting with yourself, you’ve got to be so in control of daily details that you’re comfortable turning off all gadgets.

“When you take time for coffee at a coffee shop, leave the cellphone or BlackBerry holstered,” suggests Steve Prentice, author of Cool Down: Getting Further by Going Slower. “Take time to stare at your coffee rather than your email. Only then can the mind relax and process bigger-picture thoughts.”

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