STARTUP

3 Tricks for Making Time to Think

Finding time to meditate on big thoughts is a challenge when you're working on a start-up. Here are three tips from the pros on how to give yourself creative free-time.
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With babies at our sides and a growing start-up on our hands, finding time to think big thoughts (let alone little ones!) is far from an easy task.

Running a company means there's a constant stream of emails, never-ending "to do," lists and no time to actually just think. That unfortunately means little time to reflect or to actively think through long-term goals. And it seems we're not alone--the Harvard Business Review recently reported that in a 55-hour work week, CEOs have just six hours to work alone. And who knows how many of those hours are actually spent thinking.

We're constantly struggling to find this elusive "think time" ourselves, whether it be while we're alone or together. We try to set aside time during our morning meeting to think about the big-picture questions, but it's easy to get bogged down in the tasks at hand and to rush out of the meeting to start executing the agreed upon plan of action on the pressing matters of the day.

Often our best ideas—those rare but often inspiring aha moments--have occurred after spending hours together working on a specific event or project (a big meeting, a long day at a trade show, etc) or in some sort of moving vehicle (plane, train or automobile). But often they're unpredictable.

Most successful people--whether they're start-up entrepreneurs or corner office senior executives--know that if they don't carve out time to think, they'll lose perspective and fail to make smart decisions that can guide their company over the long-term. 

So it got us, well, thinking: How can we really focus-in on the important, long-term ideas in a more systemic way? We talked with other entrepreneurs and leaders to find out how the super-successful business-owners out there do it. Here are our three takeaways:

Meditate. "Don't just do something, sit there." Julie's uncle used to tell her this on a regular basis. It's definitely counter-intuitive for your average overachiever, but it's certainly sound advice. More and more, business leaders we know are turning to meditation.

Don't worry--you don't need to pack your bags for an ashram or take a vow of silence, although we know many people who swear by both. For the beginner, you just need to find a comfortable place to sit quietly and breathe. And while the goal is to think of nothing, it typically leads to clearer thinking about everything.

"It often gives me clarity on business ideas that I struggle with," says Mick Malisic, a serial entrepreneur. "The trick in meditation is effectively to listen, not think--it's really nothing more than that, but it's harder to do than it seems and takes practice. That said, once you get there, it can be extraordinary." There are numerous "how to" guides online like this one, and most yoga studios offer introductory classes.

Make reading a priority. "For me, it comes almost exclusively from reading," says Gina Bianchini, founder of Mightybell.com, a social media site that allows people to create groups with friends. "It's less about shutting out the real world and more about looking for opportunities to study patterns, truths, psychology, economics, and the bigger picture of how systems work."

The most inspiring books Bianchini has read recently include leadership stories in Bill Walsh's The Score Takes Care of Itself, innovation ideas from Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From, and for different takes on interest topics, she recommends Cultural Strategy by Douglas Holt and Douglas Cameron and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.

Take a walk. If sitting quietly isn't your thing, try taking regular walks. "[Mark] Zuckerberg is well known for walking, at all hours, to think, and to plan," says David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company that is Connecting the World. And like Steve Jobs, Zuckerberg is known for using walks for important meetings. "[Zuckerberg] likes to take people along for important meetings during walks," says Kirkpatrick. It turns out that this is far from a modern day habit. Aristotle was a known walker-thinker.

While each of these ideas seems easy--how hard is it to go for a walk?--the challenge is in making a regular habit of them. So pick your favorite strategy and schedule an hour each week (or day, if possible) to actually do it. You'll be happy you did.

IMAGE: Flickr/Helga Weber
Last updated: Jun 19, 2012

LEE CLIFFORD AND JULIE SCHLOSSER | Columnist | Co-founders, Altruette

Lee Clifford and Julie Schlosser are the co-founders of Altruette. They make a line of classic charms that each benefits one of 35 different charities. Previously, they were both editors at Fortune magazine.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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