Time to think

by Stew Bradley March 4th, 2021

The past year of working from my bedroom saw us get increasingly busy. As January rolled around, the frequency of Zoom calls reached a fever pitch, unscheduled time on the calendar felt like a rare treat, and the tenuous boundary between work and life all but evaporated. Facing an ever-growing list of to-dos is not unusual when building something new, I knew what I was signing up for. But as investors, continued learning is more than an optional exercise, it's a job requirement. Ensuring I was finding enough time outside of the daily blocking and tackling to do this learning was a must. For over a year we've been using a system we call Level Learning to manage our reading. But as the calendar got more chaotic, simply tracking the reading I was doing wasn't enough. I was forced to start scheduling reading time each week to make sure I wasn't falling behind. Reading is something I've always enjoyed, and over the years I've developed a decent sense of the pace I can absorb new material. It's worth noting that me carving out this explicit reading time wasn’t an attempt to increase my consumption, I was just trying to keep up. And while my reading pace stayed consistent, the insights and new ideas I was generating felt stunted and forced. It's as if the combination of work-from-home and an increasingly packed schedule had broken some aspect of how I learned.

As working from home became the new normal and people started weighing in on the pros and cons of leaving the office, time savings has often topped the list of benefits. A bulk of these savings come from the lack of commute, but that isn't the only source. All the time spent navigating a workplace that isn't also our living space adds up. The short wait for the elevator, the two minutes in the queue at the coffee station, or the walk to and from in-person meetings are all examples of little moments throughout the day when we couldn’t be sitting at our desks doing work. Let’s call this time, in aggregate, the friction around in-office work. And while I agree that losing this friction has potential benefits—I love the 6 foot commute from my bed to my desk—there are some elements about it that served a purpose. While it sounds counterintuitive, the friction around in-office work actually gave us time. Not more time for work, but time when we couldn't be working. Time to think.

Unbeknownst to me, the friction around work had naturally injected a balance between ‘doing work’ and thinking into my day. Because I'd thought of that friction as waste, once it was gone I filled the extra hours by 'doing’ more work. More reading, more calls, more writing, all of which are good things. I had just failed to also carve out time explicitly to do more thinking. Looking back, I imagine myself these past few months as the knowledge worker equivalent of the Cookie Monster—bear with me. If you’ve ever seen the Cookie Monster eat a cookie, you may have noticed that while he chews, crumbs flying everywhere, he doesn’t actually swallow a single crumb. As I got busier I focused on making sure I was still chewing a lot of proverbial cookies, but hadn't worried about making time to swallow. Instead, I’d be on the next project, cracking the next book, taking the next call, or laboring over the next blog post.

In his book “Elastic” theoretical physicist Leonard Mlodinow makes the point that it's the moments when we aren’t intently focused on a task that our most creative thinking happens.

“Your association cortices are always running in the background, but when you are not focused on some task—for example, when you are doing something mindless, like driving—that’s when your mind is most free to roam. That’s why that is when you most actively create new ideas.”

"Something mindless" is a broad category, but I'm fairly certain the work I was doing in my newly found time didn't qualify. I’m not sure about you, but blocking out time to do nothing except think is not a habit I’d developed working at Goldman Sachs or a NY hedge fund. Sitting at my desk in the Goldman office, with my screen off, staring out the window would definitely have garnered some sideways glances. But realizing that doing work is only half the battle, and that unplugging is a vital part of learning and more than just a way to avoid burnout has helped me lean into the practice. Despite my trepidation, I now block time on my calendar each week for thinking. This means, no screens, no music (TBD if that one will stick), no talking or phone calls, no writing, and no reading. I've found playing fetch with my dog Iggy to be a good thinking time task.

I’m only two months into this experiment, but as I’ve taken time to step away and do something mindless I have felt notably more settled and, dare I say, productive. But the sample size is small, and the jury is still out. As a regular practice, will thinking time help me manage the growing day-to-day demands of my job with the need to continue learning or just build up my backlog? Will the benefits of fewer hours spent doing work be a net positive over the long run or make me less productive? While early signs are positive, the devil is in the details and finding the right balance will be pivotal. I’ll keep you posted.

@stewbradley