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Give yourself more time to think

January 30, 2017

Where’s your favourite place to do your best thinking? Mine’s a deserted, windswept, isolated beach. It’s hard for me to put into words why I like the beach so much, it’s just everything about it is renewing for me, almost like therapy. Beach Therapy. Perfect beaches, perfect water, perfect rock pools, your own space, all the seclusion you could want.

But no one can live without relationships. You may withdraw into the mountains, become a monk, a sannyasi, wander off into the desert by yourself, but you are related. You cannot escape from that fact. You cannot exist in isolation, but there’s nothing I like more than to take myself off for some thinking time on the beach.

A beach is not only a sweep of sand, but shells of sea creatures, the sea glass, the seaweed, the incongruous objects washed up by the ocean, all stir my thinking. For me, the more deserted the better, trudging slowly over wet sand, sit on the promenade, write postcards of notes to self. I do my best thinking in isolation. It isn’t as if you are alone, it’s that you find yourself thinking alone.

Part of the isolation comes from what you are experiencing. You are the one who sees the situations in your head most clearly, and it will often be difficult for others to see things the same way. The sounds of surf breaking on a shore and the cries of sea birds, with little to do and few distractions, it opens your mind. More time to think, quiet time to think a problem through.

Yet today offers a strange paradox: our knowledge and understanding of complexities in the world expands dramatically yet the time to think and analyse is getting smaller and smaller. How do you make time to think?

John D. Rockefeller is one of the most successful businessmen of all time, yet he was also a recluse, spending most of his time by himself. He rarely spoke, deliberately making himself inaccessible and staying quiet when in meetings. A refinery worker who occasionally had Rockefeller’s ear once remarked: He lets everybody else talk, while he sits back and says nothing. But he seems to remember everything, and when he does begin he puts everything in its proper place.

When asked about his silence during meetings, Rockefeller often recited a poem: A wise old owl lived in an oak, The more he saw the less he spoke, The less he spoke, the more he heard, Why aren’t we all like that old bird?

The more I read about him the more I realise he figured out something that now applies to all entrepreneurs today. Rockefeller was in the oil business, but his job wasn’t to drill wells, load trains, or move barrels. It was to make good decisions, and making decisions requires more than anything else, quiet time alone in your own head to think things through. Rockefeller’s product wasn’t what he did with this hands, or even his words. It was what he figured out inside his head. So that’s where he spent most of his time and energy.

This was unique back in his day, as most jobs during Rockefeller’s time required doing things with your hands. In 1870, 81% of jobs were in agriculture, crafts or manufacturing, according to economist Robert Gordon. Few professions relied on a worker’s brain. You didn’t think, you laboured.

Today, that’s flipped. Some 38% of jobs are now designated as ‘managers, officials, and professionals’ – decision-making jobs. Another 41% are service jobs that often rely on thoughts as much as actions.

However, do we ever get enough thinking time? It’s hard to wrap your head around the idea that the most productive use of a knowledge-worker’s time could be sitting on a couch, or in a coffee shop – or on a beach walking. But it’s so clear that it is. Good ideas rarely come in meetings, or even at your desk. They come to you in the bath. On a walk. On a train, or simply hanging out on the weekend.

Look at famous thinkers who didn’t have to impress anyone by looking busy, and you see a theme: they spent a lot of time doing stuff that didn’t look like work, but in fact was what they were about.

Albert Einstein put it this way: I take time to go for long walks on the beach so that I can listen to what is going on inside my head. If my work isn’t going well, I lie down in the middle of a workday and gaze at the ceiling while I listen and visualise what goes on in my imagination.

Mozart felt the same way: When I am traveling in a carriage or walking after a good meal or during the night when I cannot sleep – it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly.

Bill Gates got his best work done on his ‘Think Week’, a seven-day stretch of seclusion he uses to ponder the future of technology.

The practice of entrepreneurial thinking is integral to understanding entrepreneurial learning and startup development. This learning is socially embedded and provides the entrepreneur with human and social knowledge resources. With an understanding of the dynamics and nuances of entrepreneurial learning, is there scope to more fully figure out how to develop entrepreneurial competencies, and thus the chances of startup success?

Entrepreneurs learn through doing, not just thinking, developing and sharing stories of their ventures, and through social interactions within their dynamic environment – which connects the ‘knowing’ to the ‘doing’. This creates the ideal setting for the delivery and assessment of practice based action learning in the realistic context of the entrepreneurial world.

We know having time to think is an important practice in making sense of the startup idea formulation, and in sharing thinking with others, it is difficult to decouple learning process and content from context, where the context mirrors the equivocal, multi-faceted and multi-directional nature of the challenges encountered by startups.

My biggest takeaways from thinking and walking on the beach are about the stop-start nature of entrepreneurial learning regarding experimentation and reflection. So, when I’ve started out on the sands with a problem to resolve in my head, here’s how I approach a stroll on the beach:

Don’t fear the blank page You don’t need to create a fully crafted solution, you just need to sketch something in your mind to make a start. Give yourself permission to experiment, play around with material and make a mess in your head.

Above all, stop caring about the outcome. It doesn’t have to be great, but exists as something that catches your attention that moment. Once it’s out there, it can become a catalyst for other ideas related to your mental venturing endeavours.

Brings clarity to your thinking I always have a notebook with me to log my stream of random consciousness – and that in turn sparks more new ideas. Writing is thinking. It forces you to examine your thoughts more critically and provides an opportunity to work through and gain clarity on the ideas, giving them some structure by having second or third thoughts about an original idea, that might otherwise sit as rolling tumbleweed in your head.

By noting those spur-of-the-moment ideas and random insights that you want to remember later, your racing thoughts become recorded and not lost on the hamster wheel of everyday stuff.

You get to know yourself Thinking whilst alone on the beach is a record of personal reflection. Taking time to shut out the loudness of the outside world and reconnect with your own thoughts in silence can lead to incredible self-discovery. The process of pouring out your unadulterated conversations in your head is both satisfying and motivating.

Fine ideas can pop up at the strangest times but they tend not to stay for long in your head, so you need to capture them or they are gone in the wind.

I do my best thinking when in my ‘note to self’ mode jotting down in the rough that would otherwise have been swept out the door with the ordinary dust of the filtered mind. Social psychologist James Pennebaker has proven, writing expressively can uplift both your mind and body.

It improves your memory My memory is like a leaking bucket. Active thinking and having conversations in my head expressively improves working memory, like replaying a film from our mental archives. Recording the ins and outs of your thinking gives more for future signposting, a way to keep sight of what happened behind you that has given you a sense of direction and momentum.

Unlocks your creativity You can nurture what was a small seedling into a sequoia of brilliance. I have definitely done my most original thinking alone. It frees up thinking space to gain clarity on what to do next. By becoming mindful with what you are thinking, you can move yourself from knowing into a doing state.

Because you’re in a direct and unfiltered dialogue with your own thinking, it can be both a clearing-house and incubator where you tap into your imagination and unleash your creativity and ideas, a jumping ground to transform from the light bulb brain sketch into reality.

Provides perspective and purpose Sometimes our perception of a situation can blind-spot us. Walking whilst thinking and having no other voices other than your own in your head helps to provide perspective on a situation, and assists our brains in properly processing it in a way that fosters a healthy outlook. This allows us to function better and get more done.

When you start to think about the things that have caught your eye and are important to your thinking, you gain the ability to start to process them against your own sense of purpose.

Thinking on your own is, I believe, a practice that teaches us better than any other the elusive art of solitude, how to be present with our own selves, bear witness to our inner voice and personal experiences, and fully inhabit our inner lives. It translates the inner to the outer. It just goes to prove that the cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea

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