Busy is the new smoking. It's cool to talk about how busy you are. To plow through your email inbox as you run from meeting to meeting. To wake up at the crack of the dawn so you can get ahead while the world sleeps.

To revel in our busyness signals how successful we are. It also means we're not accomplishing as much as we could be. Because when you're constantly hustling in your business, there's no time left for big-picture thinking about your business.

That's why successful leaders aren't busy 24/7. They make time for solitude instead. They untether themselves from their smartphones, duck away from the office, and spend time with just their own thoughts.

When solitude breeds success

This is a key insight from Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude, a new book from Raymond M. Kethledge and Michael S. Erwin. Without dedicated time every single day spent in deep, uninterrupted reflection, a leader will never be able to truly step away from the minutiae of the day-to-day and focus on what matters. Time spent thinking strategically is a leader's secret to success.

New York Times op-ed columnist David Leonhardt calls time carved out for reflection each week the Shultz Hour. He tells how Secretary of State George Shultz would sit down for one hour each week with a pen and paper. His secretary was only allowed to interrupt him if the president or his wife called. "The only way to do great work, in any field, is to find time to consider the larger questions," Leonhardt reminds us.

It's not just about sneaking moments away from the hectic world swirling around them. Kethledge and Erwin claim leaders have an obligation and responsibility to make themselves inaccessible -- that means no meetings, emails, or interruptions -- even if it inconveniences those around them. Important emails may go unanswered. Meetings might get pushed back. "So be it," Kethledge and Erwin wrote in The Wall Street Journal. "Scheduling a leader's time is a zero-sum game, and fundamentally a manager must decide whether reflection and hard analytical work are important enough."

How to schedule solitude

If you're a hot-shot executive or CEO, it's more acceptable to be inaccessible. People get that you don't have time for everyone. But what if you're not quite there (yet)? A few ways all of us can carve out time for solitude:

  • Reduce the number of times you check email each day.
  • Block out time on your calendar in which meetings can't be scheduled.
  • Designate certain days of the week as no-meeting days.
  • Turn off phone notifications. Or better yet, leave the phone in another room.

Of course, if people are used to your replying to an email within 30 seconds, suddenly going dark for days might raise some flags. Managing expectations is key. Here's a perfect example. I recently exchanged emails with someone I met at a networking event. Her email signature was brilliant.

In order to best serve my clients, I will only be checking my email inbox twice a day. If something is urgent, please call XXX-XXX-XXXX.

I loved this. I knew that going forward, this was not someone I should expect instant replies from. And I loved the thoughtfulness and strategy this projected about how she approached her business. It gave me something to think about concerning my approach to my own email inbox -- and my own solitude. If I wanted to work smarter, not harder, why did I have three Gmail tabs open at all times?

Being busy or instantly accessible should not be a badge of honor. It means you're not making time to think strategically about your business. Remember this next time you are about to reply to an email seconds after it hits your inbox.

Published on: Jun 20, 2017