Downtime Thinking

October 19, 2020 • #

Of the hundreds of posts I’ve written here over the past few years, I would guess that 80% of the topics spawned in my head while exercising. Running is my primary regular means for alone time to think in silence. I usually listen to audiobooks while I’m out, but constantly pause to dictate notes to myself into a scratchpad document. Reviewing this occasionally is like a stream of consciousness chain of observations and ideas that I can usually peg to an origin of what triggered the idea, then can take it and run with it when back home. There may even be some science behind this; perhaps a more active heart rate or increased blood flow increases brainpower. Wild speculation, but running certainly feels mentally invigorating sometimes.

When we sit at our desks, we have access to all of our resources — apps, tools, websites, Wikipedia — you’d think that an environment like that would be a boon to creative thinking. But that continuous pull of your attention into different directions plays hell with being able to contemplate freely, to dive into the second-order consequences of an idea.

During the work day we’re also all contending with dozens of meetings, calls, emails to read, emails to send, a never-ending stream of minor inputs that don’t afford the free space to think for extended periods. That dedicated time when we’re fully undedicated, no commitments to anything or anyone, is often when we have the range of motion to do our best thinking.

In a post from a few years ago, Morgan Housel referenced a great quote from psychologist Amos Tversky:

Amos Tversky, the late collaborator of Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, once said “the secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours.”

When I look at my calendar on many days, I wonder how or when any deep thinking is supposed to get done. Luckily I devote space for this for other physical exercise that does double duty as a mental stimulant. It’d be nice if we collectively had more respect for this phenomenon in spaces of knowledge work, but until we do, the best we can do is understand it and compensate with our own “downtime.”

Here’s Morgan again with a nice reminder:

There’s never going to be an Adamson Act for knowledge workers who need time to think. It’s up to you to figure it out. The first step is realizing that taking time in the middle of your day to do stuff that doesn’t look like work is the most important part of your work day.

Even though Steve Jobs famously said the computer was the “bicycle for the mind,” I think we might need to remove that metaphor — maybe the bicycle is the best bicycle for the mind (or your legs or weights or your favorite chair in a silent room).