Successful Leaders Make Time to Think


Being busy has become a competition.  Overscheduled calendars, working while on the toilet – even forgoing vacations, has become the norm.  Brigid Schulte, Washington Post staff writer and author of “Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time,” points out that our society is one where the “Protestant work ethic [is] in overdrive.”  It is a society where: “Psychologists treat burned-out clients who can’t shake the notion that the busier you are, the faster you work, and the more you multitask, the more you are considered competent, smart, successful.”

When leaders fall prey to the busyness trap, time devoted to thinking and reflection is often minimized or eliminated; the result can be catastrophic. Freek Vermeulen, Associate Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the London Business School, cautions: “If you can’t find time to think it probably means you haven’t organized your firm, unit, or team very well, and you are busy putting out little fires all the time.  It also means that you are at risk of leading your company astray.”

Warren Buffett and Bill Gates prioritize thinking.  Warren Buffet estimates that he spends 80% of his working day reading and thinking.  Bill Gates famously dedicated two weeks each year to thinking. Gates would spend each “Think Week” sequestered away from everyone and everything reading more than one hundred papers from Microsoft employees that examined issues related to the company and the future of technology.  For Gates, “Think Week” was a time for thinking and for reflecting on Microsoft’s strategy and future.

While dedicating two weeks per year to thinking may not be realistic for everyone, it is important that leaders make and take time to think on a regular and consistent basis.

Vermeulen shares the story of a CEO of a large, global bank: “’It is very easy for someone in my position to be very busy all the time.  There is always another meeting you really have to attend, and you can fly somewhere pretty much every other day.  However, I feel that that is not what I am paid to do.  It is my job to carefully think about our strategy.”

Unsure of how you can find time to make time?  Start here:

  1. Recognize that this time is critical to your success as a leader, and to the success of your company; do not let anything encroach on this time.
  2. Commit to spending a minimum of two hours per week on thinking and reflection.
  3. Block out the time in your calendar, making the time regular and consistent.
  4. During your “Think Time,” shut off the phone, lock the door, find a private place, don’t check emails…do whatever you need to do to make sure you are not interrupted and not distracted.
  5. After one month, increase the amount of time. Aim for five “thinking hours” per week.
  6. Keep increasing the amount of “Think Time” until you find what works best for you.

If you need guidance on what to think about, Vermeulen offers five questions that can help you reflect on the big picture:

  1. What does not fit?
  2. What would an outsider do?
  3. Is my organization consistent with my strategy?
  4. Do I understand why we do it this way?
  5. What might be the long-term consequences?

Remember: “Leadership is not just about doing thing, it is also about thinking.  Make time for it.”


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