The point of thinking—about life and leadership—isn’t just to know new things. It is, to paraphrase philosopher Jim Rohn, to behave in new ways. Reading a book won’t help you lead any better than buying a treadmill will make you fit. If you don’t use it, you lose the benefit. (50% of adults don’t read one book a year.)
We live in an age that seems marked by attention deficit. Our lives have so many competing demands that a modern dilemma seems to be a lack of time to truly thinking. Yet thinking is the basis for everything that happens in our lives. It is a dangerous course to allow others to do our thinking, or to let business and activity minimize the amount of time we give to thought about our work and lives.
Leaders are always good thinkers; great leaders are great thinkers. The following suggestions will allow you to undertake better thinking and reap the benefits thinking creates.
(Author’s Note: These suggestions were originally published in Leadership Lessons in March, 2004 and are republished here by request.)
1. Make time to think.
Most days when I’m in Denver, usually mid-afternoon, I drive a couple of miles to the nearest Starbucks. I don’t take my cell phone, but only a pad a paper and a pencil. My objective is to spend 15-30 minutes of uninterrupted thinking.
Feedback from my audiences tells me that this simple idea is one of the most effective and valued things I teach.
Why don’t people make time to think? Perhaps it is because they confuse activity with accomplishment. Author Amy Salzman once observed that most people aren’t too busy to look up from the grindstone; they are afraid of what they might find.
We can stay incredibly busy and still accomplish little. Thinking helps us separate the mundane from the magnificent in our lives. It can clarify both our direction our purposes. It does require that we stop doing business and living life long enough to think about our businesses and our lives.
2. Find a good place to think.
Many homes have a room called a study, although how much if any study actually occurs in these rooms is questionable. A study can be an excellent place to think, especially if you design it for that purpose. Any place that provides enough calm and lack on interruption is a good place. One of my favorite thinking places is about 30 minutes outside of Denver on the side of a small mountain that overlooks the Continental divide.
The reason for having a place to think is that a purposeful place quickly enables thinking mode. When we go to a specific place or spot to do out thinking, the mind becomes conditioned to do just that.
Find a place that invigorates your thinking and go to it frequently.
3. Focus your thinking.
One of the biggest obstacles to thinking is lack of focus. At times it benefits one to let his or her mind wander. This open, spontaneous approach is not, however, the best at all times.
There are two basic ways to develop focus: the first is to focus on a problem to be solved or an obstacle to overcome. The second is to focus on an opportunity to be exploited or an improvement to be made.
Within those two broad categories, further focus can be given to personal or professional issues, and then human or material categories.
Keep in mind that even problem solving can become an exercise in positive thinking. Framing is what makes the difference. For example, better than thinking about how to pay your bills (survival mode) is how to increase your income (success mode).
4. Record your insights.
I’ve observed that most people have pretty good ideas. The problem isn’t a lack of ideas but a lack of recall. Ideas are fleeting and must be captured. Some of the biggest payoffs from thinking will occur when you review notes of previous sessions and add to or modify what you came up with (the outline for this article was initially done on a piece of scrap paper in a restaurant in New York and revised later).
5. Consider how you know what you know.
Mark Twain said it wasn’t what we didn’t know that hurt us, but what we know that just isn’t so.
Thinking should (to paraphrase Scott Peck) be the pursuit of reality. To be sound, you should consider questions like “What do I believe?”, “How do I know this conclusion is true?” and “Says who?” Truly thinking can be somewhat threatening because it causes us to reexamine things that we often take for granted.
Good thinking isn’t just about the new things we learn but also the inaccurate things we abandon.
6. Stimulate your brain.
Doug Hall, founder of Eureka Ranch and creativity guru believes that coffee is the ultimate thinking elixir (and that’s another reason why I often do my thinking at Starbucks.) Christopher Marlow believed good conversation was a stimulating as coffee, and I believe thinking should be as well. But a cup of java to get the process started doesn’t hurt.
There are other ways to stimulate your thinking. Reading outside your comfort zone is one. Whether that means reading a book or magazine that is challenging, or simply reading a publication from an unfamiliar genre, the point is to introduce new concepts and ideas into your mind. Going over the same familiar road will take you to the same familiar places. To reach an exotic destination requires a different route.