Years ago I was accepted into an NEH Summer Institute, and one of the biggest takeaways from that experience was the revelation of dedicating time to think. At the time I was an overworked and underpaid adjunct Lecturer and unfunded graduate student, so a week of paid thinking time rocked my world. This is also why artists go on retreats and CEOs get up at 5am – so they can carve out dedicated time to think. Knowledge work, in theory, depends on having time to think, but the pressures of late stage capitalism means we are often trying to reproduce quality productivity born of time to think without actually having the time to think.
In addition to what we really need to be productive, we also need this time. But even when we have it, we often forget to use it. I only recently started scheduling time to think—like actually creating an event on the calendar that says “Think About X for 30 minutes.” And I’m here to tell you that it is awesome. A lot of our big ideas never become reality or fail to succeed because we don’t make dedicated time to think about them. When it is an especially big idea or entirely new to you, it can seem so daunting that it stays forever on the “some day list.” But breaking the ice by scheduling a short window to think about it is sometimes all it takes to get the snowball rolling down the hill. In my thinking sessions, I sometimes take notes or do a related experiment, but often I stare into space and just think about it. Having even 15 minutes of thinking time feels like a luxury. It feels like I’m giving myself an hour in a hot bath with a glass of wine (for my mind).
There are also a myriad of contexts where this is helpful: taking time before a meeting to think about the agenda and prepare for the discussion, taking time after a meeting to reflect on what was discussed, taking 15 minutes to really think about how to reply to a challenging email, fleshing out ideas inspired by a recent professional development experience, time before or after a class to think about the material, etc. I could go on, but I also want to say that the thinking doesn’t always have to be attached to a work task. Sometimes you just need time and space to think big thoughts to see what shape they take.
Make the Most of Thinking Time
- Minimize Distractions
No surprise that this is my first piece of advice. I suppose you *can* think while talking to your spouse about what’s for dinner, walking the dog, and listening to the latest NPR podcast, but I doubt it’s going to be the kind of thinking that helps you move the needle on your big ideas. Put away your phone, turn off the stupid email ding, find a quiet corner where no one will look for you.
- Set a Timer
I know I just said put away your phone, but hopefully (!) you have a device other than your phone that can keep time for you (a home assistant, a radio, an accountability buddy, a watch??). The reason I suggest setting a timer is because you are presumably a busy person and letting thinking time balloon to the point where that is all you’re doing (as opposed to actually doing stuff) is going to backfire. It also helps by relieving the pressure you might feel of doing this kind of dedicated thinking. It’s like exercising – if you start with a marathon, you’ll give up immediately. Telling yourself, “I can do 15 minutes! That’s nothing” will help you stick with it and relax enough for the ideas to start flowing.
- Change Location
I do my best thinking away from my normal work desk. Something about being on a walk outside or sitting on my couch or at my dining table just puts me in a different headspace – one that is more open and free. I might even bring my laptop with me to the new place, but the effect is the same because of the new location.
Sometimes what you really need to move a project forward is just to try something you’ve been putting off. I count this as thinking because you are really just playing around and conceptualizing. For instance, maybe you heard about a cool text analysis tool like Voyant or research platform like ConnectedPapers (you’re welcome!) and you just want to see how they work and whether they’ll have any role in your future plans for a given project. This is a perfect experiment to do in 15 or 30 minutes.
Sometimes the “I need to think about X” is really about research. Like comparison shopping for a pair of new boots–sometimes you just need a small window to dig down and grab some data. I see this as distinct from the kind of research I do for my scholarship mostly because of the time commitment. This kind of research-thinking is usually something more focused and less nebulous. For example, combing the MLA CFPs for panels I want to join or comparing the qualities of different podcast hosting sites to see which one I might consider for my future podcast.
- Do Nothing
As I said above, sometimes I don’t do any of the above. I simply sit for 15-30 minutes staring into space thinking about what I want to do or say. I might jot down some notes or doodle something in my watercolor notebook, but often just sitting still for even 10 minutes is enough for me to overcome a barrier or break new ground or simply move the needle.
Do you make time to think? If so, how do you make it happen? If not, what are the challenges you face in scheduling this time? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
Stay tuned for more posts this year about teaching, research, and academia. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @litambitions and Instagram: @ecacademic (where I really nerd out about planning). You can also follow this blog (see the email subscribe button on the home page).