One of the biggest complaints about modern life is that with a fire hose of information trained on us at every moment, it's exceptionally hard to find time to get clear of the noise and actually think. Plenty of incremental solutions exist - from digital sabbaths to meditation to tech tools to help you tame your tech addiction - and no doubt they're marginally helpful.
But perhaps the best solution isn't constantly struggling to find space for deep thought amid the everyday overwhelm. Maybe the best solution is to set aside a dedicated time to go all in on deep thought.
That's what plenty of super successful entrepreneurs and VCs are discovering anyway. Bill Gates is the father of this trend with his long-standing and well publicized habit of taking two 'Think Weeks' for deep study and reflection each year. But in the years since Gates' intriguing ritual has been public, lots of lesser known founders have followed suit.
"Earlier this month, my good buddy, Mike Karnjanaprakorn, founder / CEO of Skillshare, stopped by our place in the Catskills for a few hours," VC Steve Schlafman shared on Medium recently, for example. "He was just coming off his seventh 'Think Week.' Over lunch, Mike explained the inspiration behind this annual ritual and outlined the basic structure he has used over the years."
The conversation inspired Schlafman to take his own.
The power of time apart
What do members of the usually frantically paced startup scene get out of slowing down for a condensed period of thought and reading? The exact goals vary from person to person - in late '90s Gates once famously used his week to get his head around the emerging trend of the internet - but all commentators seem to agree that the experience is a great way to set your direction. That way, when you come back and start running full speed, you'll actually be running in the right direction.
"Like Caterina Fake says, 'Working on the right thing is probably more important than working hard,'" Karnjanaprakorn says of his Think Week experiences. "It could be the difference between burning yourself out, success, and maximizing your personal happiness and well-being."
Similarly, Schlafman attested that following his week away, "I now have clarity on how I should spend my time, what I need to say no to, which areas I'd like to further investigate, the changes I'd like to make, and, most importantly, where I'm heading in the next phase of my career."
But just because a Think Week can be hugely clarifying, don't think it's also necessarily hugely relaxing. The point of the yearly or bi-yearly getaway isn't to zone out, it's to figure things out. The experience is only as useful as the effort you put into it, and if you put in a ton of effort, the last thing you're going to feel is zen bliss.
"The week was more challenging than I anticipated," reports Schlafman. "By the end of each day, I was exhausted mentally from hours of reading and writing. By the end of the week, my brain was fried."
How to take a think week
While the whole point of a think week might be to break free of your regular routine, folks who've tried it suggest you probably shouldn't go in with no structure at all. To make the most of your time, they suggest you take a few basic steps to prepare, like these:
Set some ground rules on connectivity. Your aiming to get off the grid and refresh, but chances are decent you have responsibilities that prevent you from spending a week phoneless in a cabin in the woods. When will you check email and for how long? What's your policy on web browsing? How about phone calls? Be clear on what unplugged means for you to risk drifting into your usual patterns.
Decide on your objectives. Here, for example, are Schlafman's: "The first goal was to develop three personal and three professional goals for the next twelve to fifteen months. The second goal was to determine one focus area for the next twelve to fifteen months so I know exactly how to spend my time. The third goal was to satisfy my intellectual curiosity. The fourth goal was to journal and find inspiration for future blog posts. The fifth and final goal was to take notes on the readings so my learnings were captured."
Gather materials. You're aiming to feed your mind over the week, but what exactly will you feed it with? If you develop a reading list in advance you'll not only be more focused in your information consumption, but you'll also avoid wasting time searching for the right articles or titles to read.
With just these simple guidelines, you can craft an experience tailored to you that resets your direction or yields important insights to level up your life.
"I highly recommend setting aside some time for a Think Week if you're looking to go deep in a particular area, facing a big decision and / or experiencing a life transition," Schlafman concludes, stressing that you shouldn't feel wedded to any particular duration or location.
"Keep in mind it doesn't need to be a week to reap the rewards. If you're unable to take a break from work or get away for five to seven days, consider taking a 'Think Weekend' or 'Think Day.' You can also do it anywhere - it doesn't have to be in the woods - as long as you create an optimal environment for learning and reflection," he adds.