Time to Think

Both of my daily email “readings”—the Daily Stoic and Richard Rohr—were about stillness this morning.


Our true nature is stillness,
The Source from which we come.
The deep listening of pure contemplation
Is the path to stillness.

– Thomas Keating, “Stillness”

Daily Stoic

So how do you make good out of an indefinite quarantine? Well one easy way is to use this time to think. Take Seneca in his exiles as your inspiration. Or Musonius and Epictetus in theirs. How did they spend it? Writing. Reading. They were thinking and planning. They came out wiser, with a clearer sense of what was important in their lives.

Your employees are not going to come up with your business’ five year plan for you—only you can do that. Your publisher is not going to write your book for you. Your sales assistant isn’t going to come up with your next great sales strategy. They’re not going to invest in relationships for you. They’re not going to help you find inspiration to keep going.

You have to do that. And today is a great day to do that. Now is a time to make. To think. To reflect. To do what only you can do. To cultivate that stillness—because stillness is the key to insights and creativity and all the things you’re going to need to dig yourself out of this hole.

Good thing my meditation practice is back(ish). (I’m still really bad at meditation.)

I was actually thinking as I poured my coffee this morning (prior to reading these) that there’s consistently been this dilemma in organizations I’ve been a part of, where leaders want their staff to think more strategically—or even just more tactically—but said staff is far too busy just trying to keep up with the abitious plans of said leaders to take time to think. This often applies even at the highest level of an organization, where even directors, vice presidents, and CEOs have their time fully allocated to meetings and batting away emails and Slack messages.

So should we try to fix this, and if so, how do we go about solving this problem?

There is a “maybe” answer, which is higher-ups in an organization should be doing the strategic thinking and others necessarily need to busy themselves with tactics and execution. I’m of half a mind to agree with this point of view, as I’ve always been on the side of “actions speak louder than words” and the mindset that the best way to move a business forward is with getting working code in front of actual users. There’s a necessary balance, however, as without a destination in the distance the boat will simply wander the sea. The C-level people at organizations I admire do seem to share some habits of stillness. It’s hard, however, to quantify the value of stillness. Especially to the productivity bean-counter in one’s own head.

There is also the “absolutely” answer. Everyone in the org needs to be thinking deeply about the problems of the business. True innovation doesn’t come from the top, it comes from those closest to the product and the customers. I’m not sure where I personally stand on this one, but I know one thing: founders I’ve worked with over the last 10+ years have all wished their employees would think more strategically about the business. And we have an entire market of tools and content that prove this isn’t confined to my experience. OKRs; quarterly goals; shaped pitches. Most of these require everyone in the org to at least think tactically about how to best use their time. How does one do that when you’re just trying to wrap up last quarter’s goals? (Not to mention the five extra urgent projects that landed on your plate after the quarter was planned.)

One potential answer is to create more space–have fewer meetings, say “no” to more random sales requests, plan to do less than you would really like. But just having the space to think is not enough. Firstly, Parkinson’s Law will exert itself—or at least one of its corollaries: Work complicates to fill the available time. Secondly, and this might be the solution to the former, people need to learn (be trained) to use that space appropriately.

I’m struggling with all of this personally, obviously, or I wouldn’t be writing down these thoughts. Here are some of the practical ideas I’ve had for trying to cultivate this type of thinking, when looking through a mindfulness/stillness lens, such as was presented to me this morning.

  1. Have a clearly communicated vision
  2. Cultivate mindfulness
    1. Reading clubs
    2. Provide a meditation app subscription, or yoga classes, or whatever
    3. Psychological safety to share learnings from one’s practice
  3. Cultivate reading and writing that relates to the vision
  4. Cultivate rapid feedback within an environment of psychological safety
  5. Schedule time for all of this and provide automatic feedback mechanisms
    1. Journaling
    2. RFCs, including scheduling time for people to read and respond to RFCs
    3. Training on how to write, specifically how to write with the org as your audience. Templates.
  6. Cultivate participation from those typically silent. If you are typically a loud “voice in the room”, pause before speaking.

My final thought is one of my favorite things I’ve ever read about leadership. It was a random tweet:

one the largest indicators i’ve seen of effective leadership is one that is actually a result of a visible absence, which is to say:

leaders spend a lot of time sitting quietly with uncomfortable feelings

ashley williams

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