Time to Think

On the power of taking time to recharge creatively

Hi Friends,

Welcome to a special edition of this newsletter.

I want to share a new essay with you. Time to Think is one of six essays in a series that explores the theme of getting what you want out of work and life.

But first, a special welcome to the 87 new seekers who joined us since last time. We’re more than half-way to our goal of 500 by the end of February. More on that below.

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Time to Think

There are two kinds of time-off: vacation days and think days.

Most people are provided vacation days. But who is giving you paid time-off to think?

Vacation days are for tuning out. When you take a vacation, you sit on a beach or escape on an adventure. The intent is to let your mind be free of stress—if only for a few days. Vacations are necessary for rest and recovery. Most people vacation.

On top of taking vacation to decompress, top performers set aside time to think.

Think days are for self-development. The objective is to learn and process ideas—free of distractions and obligations. Without setting aside such time, you risk moving through life adrift and squandering the days.

Think days are a reminder that you are here to live intentionally—not just reactionary.

This essay will explore the benefits of think days. You’ll learn how the brightest minds create breakthrough work by setting aside time to think, and how you can incorporate think days into your calendar to radically transform your work and life.

You’ll see why you deserve paid time-off to think and how the next generation of companies will begin to provide think days as a workplace perk.

Let’s begin.

Taking time to think is the antidote to the demands of the day-to-day.

Too much time spent doing leaves you blind to where you are going. The value of execution comes at the expense of being heads down. You stay busy moving the ball forward, but what happens if you move the ball in the wrong direction? [1]

Think days are an investment in your future self. It’s purposeful time designed to:

  • reflect on new ideas

  • develop key insights

  • solve critical problems

  • navigate essential decisions

  • create a vision for the future

You step outside of your life, not to disconnect, but to examine with consideration.

“Without reflection we cannot learn.” said Shane Parish, “Without learning we are doomed to repeat mistakes, become frustrated when the world doesn’t work the way we want it to, and wonder why we are so busy. The cycle goes on.” [2]

The needs of daily life summon you to fulfill obligations at work and at home. There is a hidden tax on big picture thinking without dedicated time—you are limited on the view you can take before having to dive back into the details moments later. You’re left exhausted.

Even with a day set aside for deep work, the lingering thoughts of yesterday and the looming obligations of tomorrow keep you from knowing the full genius of your mind.

To create at the level of a top-performer you need extended periods of time to think.

World-class performers sow the seeds of their life’s work by devoting time to think.

Much has been written about Bill Gates who takes a think week every six months to reflect on his biggest curiosities and challenges. While he is the most well-known person to take time to think and create, he is not alone.

Designer and TED speaker Stefan Sagmeister—who has created album covers for artists such as Jay Z and Aerosmith—takes a year off every seven years to recharge. Stefan attributes everything he produces in the following years to this time-off.

You do not need to take a year.

Chef Ferran Adrià closed El Bulli for five months each year to develop new ideas and methods. The restaurant was named the world's best a record five times and “the most imaginative generator of haute cuisine on the planet.”

You also don’t need to take months, a few days will do.

Closer to planet earth, entrepreneur Mike Karnjanaprakorn travels to a cabin in the woods for an annual think week. There, in solitude, he arrives at new insights and forms fresh ideas for Skillshare and Otis—two leading companies he’s founded.

Setting aside a meaningful number of days to think in solitude is a common requisite for world-class performers. One week is the right amount of time for most people. It can have profound effects.

Think days are essential for anyone who creates, and you are the creator of your life.

There is an intuitive misconception that think time is leisurely.

Wrong. It’s real, hard work.

It requires preparation and dedication. Still, there is good news. Think days are a high-leverage tool available to anyone who can make time for just a few days away.

Start by blocking time in your calendar. Give yourself as much time as you can take.

Plan to go alone. “The best thinking has been done in solitude,” said Thomas Edison. Your books should be your only companion. They will help you learn new ideas.

Pick a location ideally surrounded by nature and without connectivity. “Your environment drives your will power,” says author James Clear. Keep no obligations. Avoid meetings, emails, and calls. Think days deserve a sacred level of protection.

Define clear outcomes you are working towards. Without a plan, your time will be filled with thoughts that get you nowhere. But, be careful to not overload yourself.

Plan to do nothing on the first day. The wastewater of daily thoughts must be emptied before the clear water of creativity arrives. This is your time to settle in. [3]

Set a daily routine conducive to learning and reflection. Incorporate exercise and plan activities like hiking or yoga that contribute to your overall focus. If done deliberately, this period can be the most long-term productive time you take.

Enable your success by gathering tools for reflection, mental exercises, and activities you’ll need for creative output. An ideal think week will maximize free time to its theoretical limit. Consider prepared meals to reduce cooking time to near zero.

Make more space for thinking.

Finally, record your output. You’ll have gathered a treasure of new ideas and insights.

You can now focus on execution, confident that you are moving in the right direction.

What role does your employer play in enabling you to take such time?

Vacation days are a right—but it has not always been that way. [4]

Think days are a privilege—but they don’t have to be.

Most companies do not have the structures in place for you to take critical time to think. This can result in poor decisions made in haste and strategic missteps. These costly mistakes will slow the best companies down and kill the young fragile startup.

The 21st-century company will provide think days as a standard workplace benefit. They must. The value of your good idea is immeasurable and your high-leverage insight can change the trajectory of the company. Think days improve the bottom line.

Giving think days as a benefit is high-signal. By providing think days, companies show that they value your strategic input and that they are vested in your long term success.

Many companies already provide paid sabbaticals to top executives. Most companies in the tech industry offer flexible or generous vacation policies that can theoretically be used for think days. It is a small leap to explicitly provide think days as a benefit.

Leaders will restructure the company calendar to allow for think days in addition to vacation time. The insights you develop will serve the company. The clarity you gain will make you more fulfilled and productive.

Enabling think days in an organization will lead to better creativity, innovation, clearer decision making, less churn, and better employee mental health.

It will seem archaic that companies did not give think days—and that you did not demand this sacred time for yourself.


[1] This was borrowed from Why Every Leader Needs to Take a Think Week by Michael Karnjanaprakorn. He wrote the sentence better than I could have.

[2] I highly recommend Shane Parish’s book The Great Mental Models: General Thinking Concepts. The book provided me with the frameworks to kick off a long cycle of recovering from burn out. I only wish I had picked it up earlier.

[3] The original sentence was written by Julian Shapiro in his blog post The Creativity Faucet. “This wastewater must be emptied before the clear water arrives.”

[4] We owe our modern vacation days to the labor movements of the 19th century.

Thanks to Mark Mossberg, Nick deWilde, Linda Zhang, Julian Shapiro, Matt Maiale, Yousuf Bhaijee, and Christine Popovich for reading drafts of this.

The Road to 500

Earlier this year, I wrote of our goal to grow this newsletter to 5,000 of us by the end of 2021. The first step is 500 by the end of February.

This newsletter grew more in the last week than since we started!

We’re well on our way, but it will take all of us to get there.

If you’re enjoying this newsletter, I’d really appreciate it if you share it with your friends, tweet, post to Slack, on LinkedIn, or get out the word in your own way.

The next time you’ll hear from me is Monday, February 1.

Until then,