Warren Buffett, the CEO of the fourth largest company in the country, isn't as busy as you are. By his own estimate, he has spent 80% of his career reading and thinking.
"That's what created [one of the] world's most successful business records in history. He has a lot of time to think," Charlie Munger, Buffett's long-time business partner, has said of his unusual approach to productivity.
For most people, Buffett's wide-open schedule is totally counter-intuitive. It goes against everything we think we know about what a leader does. Reading about the Elon Musks and Jeff Immelts of the world leads us to assume that business greatness means little sleep, and even less time with loved ones. Immelt, for example, has worked 100 hours per week for his entire career.
Buffett's schedule may seem like an anomaly. In reality, he's a trailblazer. Thanks in part to his example, over the past few years, several high-profile CEOs have come out against the norm of constant busyness. They argue that critical thinking time is essential in a complex, rapidly-changing digital economy.
AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, for instance, makes his executives spend 10% of their day, or four hours per week, just thinking. Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, schedules 2 hours of uninterrupted thinking time per day. Jack Dorsey is a serial wanderer. Bill Gates is famous for taking a week off twice a year just to reflect deeply without interruption.
I do the same. At my $250 million company, O2E (Ordinary to Exceptional) Brands, which includes brands like 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, I set aside all of Monday for thinking. I believe that, whatever your business type or size, you can and should make time for it too.
The Case For Thinking Time
"Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe."-Abraham Lincoln
Most people see leadership as a sport where success is determined by hard work. Instead, I like to think of business as being more like surgery.
My father was one of the top surgeons in Canada, so when I was young I saw how surgeons aim to have maximum impact with minimum intervention. Like Lincoln chopping down a tree, accomplishing this is about careful planning. The actual surgery-the physical work-is only a small part of the process.
I approach business the same way. The Mondays I devote to thinking allow me to operate with surgical precision during the rest of the week. Here's what I do during that day.
Step #1: Schedule the whole day in your calendar
Are other people constantly taking your time and dictating your priorities? If so, the first step to finding time to devote to thinking is to take control of your calendar. Let people know that you won't respond to emails or phone calls on a particular day, unless there's an emergency.
Step #2: Do NOT go to your office
My best ideas come when I'm not in the office, so I often spend the day wandering around Vancouver. I pick where to go based on the type of thinking that I need to do. On a given Monday, I might go through six coffee shops. I might walk in the forest, take a bike ride, hang out on the beach, sit on a park bench, or even have a glass of wine. Whenever I feel stuck, I move locations.
Step #3: Bring your journal
Writing is a powerful way to capture your ideas and get them into an organized, actionable form. The key is not to censor or judge yourself-just spill your thoughts onto paper without criticism or even evaluation. There are many ways to do this. I'm a very visual person, so my notebook is filled with pictures, arrows and words. Find what works best for you.
Step #4: Reschedule or shorten meetings you have later in the week
As I'm out of the office all Monday, my Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday are usually spent in back-to-back meetings. I set aside 15 minutes on Monday to review the meetings that are set up for the week and compare them to my priorities. If a meeting isn't a high priority, I will ask my assistant to either reschedule it or shorten it.
Step #5: Prune your to-do list for the week
Most of those meetings lead to action steps. Over the course of the week, tasks pile up and my to-do list can become so long that it's unrealistic for me to complete all of it. Rather than blindly checking off items as they come up, I use my thinking day to review the list and evaluate which ones are truly a priority. I ask myself: 'Should we really action this?' Often, I find that what seemed important at first isn't anymore.
Step #6: Identify your top three outcomes for the day
Besides planning your week to come and reviewing your to-do list, set three goals for your thinking day and jot them down. This will ensure you get the maximum impact from those open hours.
Step #7: Use powerful questions to encourage deep thinking
You will also want to devote some of your time to thinking deeply about your priorities and the direction of your business. I find prompts are helpful for this. Here are some of my favorites:
- Am I doing the right things with the right people?
- What's most important?
- What am I good at?
- What am I bad at?
- How can I spend more time doing what I'm good at?
- How can I spend less time doing what I'm bad at?
Alternatively, I'll write out a goal and think about how I can strategically move toward it.
Step #8: Set aside time to solve your biggest problems
As important as big-picture thinking is, every business will need to solve shorter-term problems. A portion of your day can also be spent investigating challenging issues and brainstorming ways to push through them.
Step #9: Set aside time to think of new ideas
Reacting to problems is essential, but so is proactively coming up with new ideas to better your business. Set aside some time to brainstorm new ways of doing things, or new opportunities to explore.
Don't be surprised if taking a whole day for thinking feels like an indulgence at first it certainly did for me. I felt guilty for taking walks in the park or sipping wine while others were in the office. But now I can't imagine not doing it.
As CEO, I have realized I don't need to be the first one in and the last one to leave, but I do need to be the most impactful person in the office. And my 'Thinking Mondays' help me accomplish that.
If nothing else, remember this: Warren Buffett has built his whole calendar around thinking. "You look at his schedule sometimes and there's a haircut. Tuesday, haircut day," says his partner, Charlie Munger.
In this complex, rapidly-changing world, the calendars of world-class CEOs will look more like Warren Buffett's and less like Jeff Immelt's!