time to think?

01/19/2011

by pamela welling

I was reading a NYT article recently whilst eating breakfast, checking email, prioritizing voicemails and ordering a couple of management texts I’d been after online. I felt hyper connected, über smart and organized as I accomplished all of these tasks before 9am. In a nutshell, I felt productive, like I was emulating colleagues who seem effortlessly efficient in executing the multitude of tasks they attack in a 24 hour period.

The article, which investigated the importance of downtime for effective brain function, made me stop and reflect on the reality of just how impactful it is to multitask in this way. It also brought to mind clients who are trying to change some aspect of their career alongside studying, raising a family or caring for an elderly parent. For most of my clients, the importance of Smartphone’s and Blackberry’s in the workplace create an environment where they feel like they rarely get to disconnect.

Our devices really do make us smarter and I don’t doubt the benefits of technology. However, as I read the story I thought of two Business School Professors I have studied with. The first, Gill Homan, a Professor based at Manchester Met Business School, shared details of her rise to success and noted the importance of blocking time in her weekly working schedule to sit back, reflect and quite simply, think. The second, Bill Klepper from Columbia Business School recommends that new CEO’s take time to talk with employees at all levels in their organization. For him this process should ideally take six months. The thought of carving time every week to review and think or of taking six months to get acquainted to a new role seems antithetic to our connected, task oriented lives. We live in an era where every spare minute presents the opportunity to strike one more thing off the to do list, the lines between work and home are not so much blurry as non-existent and the idea of taking a significant break from your Smartphone is starting to become taboo.

Yet on an intellectual level I know that it makes sense to have these breaks and management researchers have also found evidence to support it. Organizational Development studies show that it takes the average new employee approximately 12 months to feel fully integrated into a new role. As noted in the New York Times article, studies conducted by scientists at the University of California, San Francisco evidence the benefits of actively disconnecting from work and our devices. Bill Gates saw the value of this too, during his CEO days he would gather employee proposals then retreat for his annual “think week”. It’s a process he points to as one of the most important in creating results for Microsoft. As a coach, I think the same rules apply to making a career shift or change to some aspect of our working lives. Clients who’ve made major breakthroughs are those who have been able to draw information for a number of sources and find time every week to research, investigate and address the change they want to make. But I find that the pieces really come together when clients are able to step back, get perspective and take a break; most often after a vacation where the daily pressures have been removed. It seems being disconnected really does allow for the conditions that lead to those eureka moments.

It turned out to be the best career advice that my UK based Professor received- she became the only woman to rise to the C-suite at her organization and every Friday I leave one hour bare in my schedule to try and emulate her success. Invariably the time gets snapped up by colleagues, or a client with a time sensitive need, but every now and then, I carve just enough time to come up with something almost truly inspired.

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