Give yourself some thinking space

Give yourself some thinking space

In our modern, urban world we don’t always see the seasons so clearly. But we do have a sense of change just now. Summer holidays are mainly over. New term starts. We’re heading toward winter and Christmas. And on the world stage things are shifting.

This is one of those juncture points. An opportunity to take stock of where we are and where we are going. However, they don’t just happen!

Necessity for thinking space

It is so easy just to keep on going.

It’s much harder to press the pause button… I’ll just see what happens next – it might be important – and then I’ll take some time… These things really need to be done, then I can relax and look at the higher level issues…

Busywork always gains the upper hand, unless we make a conscious decision to give ourselves some thinking space. And in our large organisations, and even small start-ups under pressure, we reward ‘doing stuff’ over thinking. More productivity, slicker processes, faster turnaround. Without stopping to ask where this is taking us.

In his brilliant book “Deep Work” Prof Cal Newport makes a striking differentiation between the many who are simply chasing productivity targets and short term gains, and the few who are playing the long game. Those who are cultivating deep work – the ability to focus, to learn and to think – are increasingly valuable in a world where computers are replicating many tasks.

Cultivating the kind of thinking so essential today requires developing new habits. They won’t just happen, especially in a distracted world where we can access information and data so easily. We don’t even have to construct a proper question, we can just ask Siri.

The consequence is that we don’t realise how flabby our thinking is becoming. And our current education system is exacerbating this for future generations.

So this isn’t just about today, but today is important. It’s the opportunity for you to make a choice about what habits you want to cultivate that will shape your future.

Courage to ask

It does take courage to ask bigger questions: Why? Where am I going? What’s my life about?

Sometimes we shy away from these because they are too big, too open-ended. And if we don’t come up with an answer then where does that leave us? That’s scary. Conversely, if we do come up with an answer that will change our world, how will we cope?

But creating thinking space isn’t only about life changing questions, though sometimes they do need asking.

It starts with curiosity. Being open to questions, even before you have the question in mind.

Just pausing and stepping back to look at where we are and what we are doing is opening the door to see more. It helps us to surface the assumptions we may be making that might not be serving us well.

It enables us to start to see patterns – of behaviour, thought, culture, cause and effect – that being up close obscures. The ‘other’ – whether that’s partners, colleagues, clients or customers – also come more into view. Who are ‘they’? What impact are we having on them and is this actually what we want? What’s changed?

As well as reflective questions, we are also giving ourselves the space to frame forward thinking questions. What if…? How can…? They are energising and stimulate hope that things can be different.

Finding your way

We are all so different. Hallelujah! What would be great thinking space for me might be completely draining for you…

Therefore we need to experiment and discover the best way to create thinking space for ourselves. Whilst there might be some extremes, most of us have general preferences which wouldn’t be difficult to meet.

For example, I need to have thinking space quietly on my own. Often walking outside and following up with plain paper and a pencil so I can map out what I’m thinking. I also need the input of reading diverse perspectives. When I’m ready then I need to talk.

Steve, my husband, is the reverse. He generally prefers to think by talking things out. Or testing stuff actively, in real time, often with noise in the background. Giving him time to go off and be quiet by himself wouldn’t be as fruitful.

For some keeping a journal – of whatever sort – is helpful in that it draws out their thinking and they can see patterns emerge. For others it might be taking time out to go to an event where they can be stimulated by different conversations, be exposed to new ideas and test old ones.

So don’t assume. Find the ways that work for you. It’s worth the effort.

Creating helpful habits

We’re so used to living off last year’s thinking, or someone else’s formula, that creating good thinking space takes practice.

As with all habits it takes time to take root. Just think of the 21 days of regular teeth brushing for kids. Or the discipline of exercise or breaking addictions.

We need to both support ourselves and support each other.

I’ve been working with a wide variety of leaders and senior teams since leaving the NHS in 2009. The cry I hear so often is ‘I haven’t got time to think”. So we encouraged, cajoled, prompted… and realised we needed to do more. Busywork always wins.

So nearly two years ago we started First Fridays at The Waterside . We make space available between 10am – 4pm every single first Friday of the month for people to drop in. Fresh coffee and cakes and the tranquility of the valley makes it easy for people to come when they need to. Consistency is huge.

What habits do you need to form?

How can you work with others to create thinking space where you are?


Is giving yourself some thinking space worth it? Definitely.

Do you need it? Probably more than you realise.

This is a really good time to recognise the shift in the season. It’s tangible. What do you need to be more aware of as you walk forward?

It starts with giving yourself permission to take time to think. And the courage to ask bigger or deeper questions. But you need to create thinking space that works for you. Where and how can you do better thinking, and with whom?

There is more to life than survival. Be encouraged, take hope, there is a fresh season calling you forward.

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