On a weekly basis, the information we analyse about the future of work feels mind-boggling. Sometimes it feels like "trying to drink from a fire hydrant", as a former client of mine would say. The complexity of change facing our workplaces is such that I find that, as I try to make sense of it, I need to take regular breaks to allow my brain to process what I’ve learned.
This is a massive issue for business leaders as they start trying to get to grips with, and respond to, the future of work. Making sense of so many complicated, concurrent and interconnected issues, that sit on the horizon, while trying to address the operational challenges of right now, is very often too much; it’s simply easier to focus attention on today than it is to take time to consider the future.
Yet make sense of them we must, otherwise we risk sleep-walking into a future that we didn’t plan for and that we didn’t want.
Taking time out from day-to-day business is increasingly important, both for optimal mental health and also so that we can positively approach complex commercial problems and create commercially relevant future products and services.
Let’s re-think time out
Noise and disruption are now so commonplace that it can be hard to discern what time out actually is. Our mobile devices are continuously flashing and beeping, alerting us to another update, message, or call to action.
In this ’always-on’ world, we need to be clear about the kind of time out that will best benefit the human brain, and feed our creativity and our ability to think critically and solve complex problems.
Good time out is most definitely NOT having a spare half hour to catch up on social media/news/favourite websites. Those will always lead you down rabbit holes, with their endless clickbait. I don’t know anyone who is focused enough to be able to look at or read what they want to read and log off. Time out is also NOT about sitting down with the latest box-set, iPlayer catch-up or Netflix.
Good time-out is a complete disconnect from anything that can disrupt our free flow of thought.
Left alone with your thoughts? Scary, right? We appear to be living in an age where we’re increasingly afraid of our own subconscious and what unpredictable thoughts lie within. Hence our societal addiction to ’busy-ness’.
Solitude and problem-solving
But in truth, being able to sit alone in the presence of our own thoughts, and being able to show an awareness of them, lies at the heart of effective mindfulness and meditation, and if we can allow ourselves to sit in the solitude of our own thinking, amazing thoughts start to emerge. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that people report that their best ideas appear when out running, when swimming, or taking part in another activity that allows us to get into "flow".
In his book Focus, acclaimed psychologist Daniel Goleman explores the neuroscience of concentration and attention. He talks about "a mind adrift" and says:
"A mind adrift lets our creative juices flow. While our minds wander, we become better at anything that depends on a flash of insight, from coming up with imaginative wordplay to inventions and original thinking."
He goes on to say:
"Among other positive functions of mind wandering are generating scenarios for the future, self-reflection, navigating a complex social world, incubation of creative ideas, flexibility in focus, pondering what we’re learning, organising our memories, just mulling life - and giving our circuitry for more intensive focusing a refreshing break."
So day-dreaming has its benefits, and we shouldn’t feel bad about taking time out to just sit and ponder.
A recent MIT SMR article reported that business leaders increasingly struggle to take time out to think about the critical issues facing their organisations. This is bad. If our leaders aren’t able to think critically, then we’re really in trouble.
Taking deliberate time out to think must, as a matter of urgency, become embedded into our commercial DNA if we are to survive and thrive in the future of work. Daniel Goleman talks about our brains having two "largely separate mental systems". He talks about the "bottom-up mind", our involuntary and automatic, emotive brain, and our "top-down mind", which is voluntary and effortful. Whether we are day-dreaming and allowing our "bottom-up mind" to aimlessly meander and suddenly stumble upon a hitherto unsurfaced insight, or whether we are using our "top-down mind" to consciously focus on our complex challenges, both types of thinking require the space and tranquillity for ideas to flourish.
As we relax into the summer break to take much-needed time out, let’s be mindful of what needs to be in place situationally to foster deeper thinking.
Without doubt, positive and restorative time-out involves consciously stepping away from our always-on and hyper-connected world. We need to acknowledge, and step away from what social health expert Julia Hobsbawm refers to as ’infobesity’. Digital detox comes into its own.
So my challenge to you, this August, is to take time each day, even just 15 minutes, to switch off, head outside and enjoy the beauty of the world around you. You’ll be amazed by the ideas that surface when you do.
Goleman, D. (2013). Focus - The Hidden Driver of Excellence. London: Bloomsbury
Hobsbawm, J. (2017). Fully Connected - Surviving and Thriving in an Age of Overload. London: Bloomsbury