We have heard the adages like “work on your business, not in it” and “come up to see the forest for the trees.” At McKinsey they urged us to continually take the “top management perspective” by zooming up to look at the business overall before jumping into the details.
But we know Bill Gates used to lock himself in a cabin for a week every year just to read and think during his “Think Weeks”. My friend Tony Crabbe, an organizational psychologist, has written two outstanding books with practical advice for clearing out the busy to give you time to think. Cal Newport goes deep into the need for us to clear space for “deep work” in his book.
Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, gets up to write at 4 a.m. 365 days a year. Stephen King clears his calendar to write 2,000 words every day before he allows himself to engage with the outside world. Great athletes envision the game before they get on the field (indeed, my friend and former roommate who served as captain of the US national rugby team told me he would spend hours envisioning every moment of the game before a match).
In other words, maybe the old adage should be reversed to “don’t just do something … sit there!”
How to get past “thinking about thinking”
These admonitions and examples have edged me over the year to appreciate the importance of blocking time to think, but for the most part, I’ve been “thinking about thinking.” It’s been a bit like plotting out a workout plan, choosing a diet, and downloading the Peloton app without actually getting off the couch.
That changed a few months ago. I implemented two practices that I believe if you also consider putting in place, you too will create the time and space to plan and thereby achieve your goals more predictably with greater ease.
Now, I’m not talking about fitness – I’m going to focus on growing a business. But the same two principles seem to work in the area of health as well. I lost 15 pounds in the last 2.5 months by applying these principles and am stronger and more flexible than I’ve been in over a decade.
What was missing for me, and may be of use to you, are two practices:
- Remind yourself of what you want.
- Structure your thinking process to create what you want.
Again, the scenario here is a business owner, leader, entrepreneur seeking to grow their business. The same principles could be applied to any domain.
Remind yourself of what you want
The human brain can process about 50 bits per second of information, yet the amount of information that is thrown at it – through what we see, smell, hear, taste, or touch – at any given time is over 11 million bits per second. In other words, our brains can only process .005% of the information it receives. Every second, our subconscious assesses input information, deciding what is worthy enough to let into conscious awareness. And it is quite a scrupulous bouncer, turning away 99.995% of the information, creating what is known has “inattentional blindness”.
To put that in perspective, it is seven times more likely that you will get struck by lightning and twice as likely that you die in a tornado or find a four-leaf clover than information you perceive gets a chance to be consciously processed by your brain.
Picture this: you are walking through a field of clovers, and you come across a four-leaf one. You see it, you touch it, but you still don’t consciously register it because your subconscious bouncer doesn’t know you want to lift the velvet rope for four leaf clovers. Similarly, if people in your organization don’t know to look for four-leaf clovers, you will walk past potentially exciting opportunities every day. It’s critical that we know what to look for.
Which brings us to our next question: how does your brain decide what to notice and what to ignore?
Tell your brain what to look for
You prime it by telling yourself what to look for, which is one of the primary functions of strategy. You tell your subconscious, “I want four-leaf clovers”. Or you tell the subconscious minds of your people, “We want to get closer to the customer” or we are looking for opportunities to create “magical experiences” (Disney), or we are looking for opportunities to be “earth’s most customer-centric company” (Amazon). Your strategic priorities are instructions to the subconscious bouncer of yourself and your people of what to let into your consciousness.
It’s not enough to be clear on what you want. We have all experienced the phenomenon of setting a new years’ resolution in January and not being present to it again until the end of the year when you sit back to look at your goals and realize you had entirely forgotten them for most of the year. It is essential that we keep our goals present so our collective subconsciousness knows what to look for, what to consider, and what to act on.
Creating a visual depiction of what you want is helpful. For my personal strategy, I have started using “Infinity Mind Movies”. They create a movie that visualizes the outcomes you want, and you watch that movie before you sleep and when you wake up. I’ve seen clients create visual depictions of the company’s strategic priorities and put them on company screen savers, posters, wall displays, and videos. One client went so far as to have executives act out a play on stage in front of the entire company that illustrated the strategy.
Structure your thinking process to create what you want
The second practice comes from recognizing that it’s hard, and I would even say useless, to think “outside the box” when looking for solutions for achieving the goals you laid out in step one. Instead of trying to think outside of the box, give your mind a new box to think in.
If your goals involve scaling a business, there are eight boxes that you want to think about regularly. If you have taken one of our Outthinker programs you may already be aware of these “8Ps.”
Every Friday I have been sitting down on the couch in my home office, laptop on my lap, to step through a structured inquiry for our business. Pick any day of the week that seems a natural “think day” day for you. What’s important is to turn off your phone and email for 30 minutes, look at your business or product or brand or innovation initiative and give yourself a current report card.
To help you with this process, here is a link to a report card template you can download and use. For each area, describe briefly what the current status is and then give yourself a letter grade (F, D, C-, C, C+, B-, B, B+, A-, A, A+), and include its number equivalent. Average your number scores to calculate your GPA (grade point average). Then, based on this report card, decide what to focus on this coming week. This primes your mind to look for opportunities.
As an example, here is the assessment I recently completed for a client we are working with. They are a B Corporation that runs a website called Earth Doggy, which sells natural, eco-friendly pet products. In the interest of full disclosure, we believed so much in this company that we invested in its website and are actively helping to grow it.
Our goal and focus now is to start moving to an A+ average. This process helps you zero in on what you need to focus on now to increase your GPA. By telling the subconsciouses of your people what opportunities and ideas to look for, you will unlock immense brain power.
To realize your goals for your business, organization, community, or career, you want to set aside time to think. The goal here is not to solve problems but to inform your subconscious what types of opportunities and solutions you are looking for.
Take the following steps:
- Every morning and evening remind yourself of what your goals are so they are present for you. Consider creating a “Mind Movie” or any other structure that serves you.
- Once a week, give yourself a report card following the 8Ps.