Just One Thing—Prosper by Making Time Every Day to Just Think

Just One ThingThe “Just One Thing” Series at Management Excellence is intended to provoke ideas and actions around topics relevant to our success and professional growth. Use them in good health and great performance!

If your typical day resembles the one that most of us experience in the corporate environment, it’s a series of meetings interspersed with a series of transactional exchanges that might be better described as interruptions.

There’s little of that elusive and precious asset called “quality time” on our calendars or in our days. The steady drumbeat of deadlines is constantly playing in our minds and at times, it feels like there’s a fire to fight around every corner. When we’re given the opportunity to be creative, it’s often in forced marches through meetings with the labels of “planning” or “brainstorming.”

Our days are filled with what has been described as “unproductive busyness.” We sprint from meeting to meeting letting the Outlook calendar drive our days. And even when we’re supposed to be focusing, too many of us are obsessively checking our devices searching for something to stimulate our brains. After all, there must be something more important than this meeting going on in front of us.

Since when did meetings become excuses to catch up on email?

Chris Lowney, a former Jesuit priest turned Investment Banker (an interesting career path to say the least), writing in his book, “Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way He Leads,” describes what happens when we don’t create the time for daily reflection: “And so we turn ourselves into hamsters on hamster wheels: spinning, but not necessarily moving forward.”

I see the long-term impact of no down-time…no thinking time in the form of worn-out mid-career managers and exhausted senior leaders who struggle through their days. They’ll describe in private that they no longer feel the same passion for the work they once loved, and they worry that they’ve lost their edge and will be unable to get it back. They are worried and frightened of what this state portends for the balance of their careers.

What we fail to do in our workdays is find time to think deeply. From unstructured conversations to reflective time on our own roles and our performance in the workplace, the time spent thinking and talking without a deadline is valuable processing time.

This isn’t down time, it’s different time. Instead of unproductive busyness, it’s productive un-busyness. It’s the root source of ideas and connections between ideas. It’s the time when we see our way forward through complex problems and toward solutions that have been otherwise elusive.

Productive un-busyness cannot be mandated, but it can be prioritized. The most successful leaders and managers I know have cultivated a mechanism that helps them recharge by creating thinking time and/or pushing themselves so far from the activities of work that the brain gets a momentary and much appreciated holiday. Lowney offers the Jesuit practice of Examen: a daily technique of prayerful reflection, as one approach for leaders and professionals struggling to jump off the hamster wheel.

From meditation and prayer to the lunchtime walk-about or workout to quiet reading time, it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you make the time to shift gears and let your brain focus somewhere other than e-mail or the noise coming from yet another status meeting.

Every day.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

No program, no management fad, no short-list of the top ten things to do. Just a reminder that your brain and the brains of your team members will serve you best if you build in and/or encourage people to regularly tune out the drumbeat and turn off the updates. I’ve watched burned-out managers come back from the brink by recognizing the need to create time to think deeply, and then making it a habit. Whether it’s for your professional mental health or for the health of your team members, it’s important to find ways to momentarily reflect and place things in context.


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By | 2016-10-22T17:11:14+00:00 May 7th, 2014|Career, Just One Thing, Leadership|16 Comments

About the Author:

Art Petty is a coach, speaker and workshop presenter focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. When he is not speaking, Art serves senior executives, business owners and high potential professionals as a coach and strategy advisor. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.


  1. Dave Dobson May 7, 2014 at 2:35 pm - Reply

    I couldn’t agree more. The challenge here is to build this into the corporate culture. I think that the burned out managers are, more often than not, the ones to blame for creating a corporate culture that encourages endless meetings and frequent “touching base”. Especially in this new world of instantaneous electronic communication and virtual offices, people find themselves just reaching out to others to find out what’s going on and announcing their virtual presence. I have seen many instances where people who were not in the “main office location” felt a great need to be present anyway, through phone, email, instant message, etc. And in the course of all this electronic noise, nobody gets any significant blocks of time to have any privacy or concentrate on important strategic issues.

    The challenge here is for all of us to stop worrying about being constantly reachable and present, and to set expectations that there are times each day that we are going to be thinking deep thoughts or working on personal development. Time spent doing these things pays big dividends, we just have to get past the notion that we always need to be visible.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, since I think we have both done our share of managing over distances and time zones.

    • Art Petty May 7, 2014 at 3:07 pm - Reply

      Dave, some great thoughts from you, as always. Your comment is challenging me to reflect on my own habits. I’ve typically been the “remote” executive and while I like to be engaged, I strive to set a time to connect and then leave people alone unless invited or unless something comes up that requires interaction. I covered this in Practical Lessons in Leadership by describing the need to adjust and adapt to people’s preferences. Some team members like morning contact and some like end of day contact. The management by walking around and water cooler discussions are tough when you are the remote manager, and certainly, it’s easy to err on the side of too much contact in an attempt to compensate. I’m hopeful that I find something approximating the right volume. I also know that as a boss, I can be a huge impediment to creative time and I strive not to impose that on anyone! (It’s remarkable how much people create when I’m not in their way!)

      The issues of personal development and/or thinking time are compelling as well. Too many people equate creating the perception of activity with building a perception that they are working hard. There’s a great deal of time wasted in the effort to look busy. I truly enjoy working with professionals who understand the import of their own development and who operate with a work/life fit perspective. (They work hard as needed and find time in their lives to focus on their personal and developmental priorities as needed. This is a core value at my firm.)

      Thank you for reading and sharing your wisdom. You are valued here. -Art

  2. Mike O'Brien May 7, 2014 at 3:10 pm - Reply

    This topic caught my eye. I’ve found this concept proven to me when I get into a meeting and someone comes up with an almost obvious and brilliant idea to solve a problem or improve a product. I ponder why I didn’t think of it myself and realize it is likely I never made time to clear my whiteboard and take a step back from the daily grind to allow my brain to stretch over a subject without a clear plan of attack.

    I’ve also seen this happen when a new member of the team joins the company and seems to be full of fresh ideas. They are not yet encumbered with the recurring sprints of meetings and can apply their thinking to the business challenges they inevitably find which no one else quite sees as clearly. I suspect it is due in part to the daily noise being relatively low and their creativity typically fills in any gaps.

    • Art Petty May 7, 2014 at 3:13 pm - Reply

      Well said, Mike! We all need this time to allow our brains to connect the dots. Somehow, I manage to wake up just a little bit smarter after the days and evenings struggling through an issue. And yes, if we could bottle the “newbie energy” and dispense it as needed in the office, we would all be better off. Thank you for reading and writing! -Art

  3. David Thibault May 9, 2014 at 1:11 pm - Reply

    Excuse the pun but this article really made me “think” about how I spend my time. We spend so much effort in trying to meet our deadlines and prioritizing our activities for maximum output that we seldom take or make the time to just think, to generate ideas that would actually help better our situation, increase our productivity or focus on direction and build what we are here to really do. Sometimes it takes a good shake up to wake up. This is a good reminder to unplug and get off of the hamster wheel on a regular basis. Thanks for the article.

    • Art Petty May 9, 2014 at 2:11 pm - Reply

      Thanks David! Agreed. We’re all guilty of it at times. I have developed a sense of when I’ve gone beyond the edge and my ideas and creativity start declining and disappearing. Now, if I can only use my own guidance here every day and cure that problem! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. -Art

  4. […] Just One Thing—Prosper by Making Time Every Day to Just Think “No program, no management fad, no short-list of the top ten things to do. Just a reminder that your brain and the brains of your team members will serve you best if you build in and/or encourage people to regularly tune out the drumbeat and turn off the updates. I’ve watched burned-out managers come back from the brink by recognizing the need to create time to think deeply, and then making it a habit.” Link […]

  5. Amber May 12, 2014 at 9:16 am - Reply

    I couldn’t agree more. This is why people feel so rejuvenated after a nice vacation. It allows time to clear your head and get rid of the “writers block” that constant meetings, emails and daily life impose on us. It allows for creative thinking among the work place and in turn happy, healthy employees.

  6. […] was reading a blog post by Art Petty this morning that got me thinking … quite literally. He exposits the importance of […]

  7. Three Star Leadership Blog May 14, 2014 at 12:33 pm - Reply

    5/14/14: From the Independent Business Blogs

    Pointers to posts by Art Petty, Jesse Lyn Stoner, Terry “Starbucker” St. Marie, Karin Hurt, and Lolly Daskal.

  8. Otto Gretzinger May 19, 2014 at 12:36 pm - Reply

    Good thoughts on the opportunity that exists to drive personal and business results by pulling back and thinking deeply on what matters. It is difficult to be visionary when your vision has laser beams focus on the documents and the meeting requests flashing on the computer screen 24” front your face. If we take time (and schedule it as a meeting request) maybe we can reflect on the keys that can drive our professional life, department and company’s strategic goals. The opportunity to make this change is ours.

    • Art Petty May 20, 2014 at 8:40 am - Reply

      Otto, wise words. Thank you for reading and commenting. -Art

  9. Kristoffer Carter May 20, 2014 at 8:34 am - Reply

    Wow, really loved this piece! Completely nailed the typical workday on so many levels, and the SIMPLE (in theory, not practice) way we can combat the onslaught.

    Our company wins awards for culture, yet we work in the extremely deadline driven, fast paced digital media industry. It can definitely be crazy-making if you let it.

    We recently granted employees 15 min per day of company-wide, company-sanctioned silence to unplug. We call it The Pause.

    Yet, how easy is it to get people to remember it exists, let alone take us up on it? Not so easy… We’re getting smarter tho. We’re supporting it with everything from Executive sponsorship to lunch and learns, and LMS content.

    I’m a Kriyaban yogi and former sales manager, now on the education and development side.

    Will love to point to this article as the perfect encapsulation of the problem we’re looking to solve, and HOW.

    There are no shortcuts to sanity, but infinite to insanity.

    • Art Petty May 20, 2014 at 8:40 am - Reply

      Kristoffer, love the “pause” approach! Thanks for your enthusiastic addition to this topic! -Art

      • Kristoffer Carter May 20, 2014 at 8:47 am - Reply

        My pleasure, Art. And THANK YOU! I have a great new blog to subscribe to. 🙂

  10. […] What we fail to do in our workdays, writes Art Petty, is to find time to think deeply. In this article, he takes a deeper look at how setting aside time to think each day will help you to prosper. Art Petty […]

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