Time (to Think) Is of the Essence

While most of us are in a perpetual flurry of activity, that doesn’t mean we’re simultaneously thinking about what we’re doing or need to do. Momen…

While most of us are in a perpetual flurry of activity, that doesn’t mean we’re simultaneously thinking about what we’re doing or need to do. Moments of dedicated reflection are essential for our key tasks of imagining, focusing, and planning.

“Be quick—but don’t hurry.” ~ John Wooden, legendary basketball coach

We’ve been bombarded with advice—largely unsolicited and unwelcome—most of our lives. There were parental pleadings for caution and abstinence; elder sages offering irrelevant lessons from their bitter experiences; constant correctives from spouses; inspirational admonitions from teachers and graduation speakers; hopelessly detailed instructions from micromanaging bosses; and so on. Much fell on deaf ears—we prefer our own self-discovered truths to the counsel of others.

But occasionally something actually sticks—not necessarily at the time, but at some ripe moment an idea returns and a fog lifts and we have one of those “now I get it” revelations.

Once, long ago and at a tender age, I was especially swollen with unearned self-esteem after having been appointed to a lofty position of rank and privilege. At the time, this seemed a well-deserved recognition of my prodigious talent and precocious competence; in fact, it was a premature promotion that nearly backfired on my employer. But at the moment of my anointment, a senior colleague—someone I considered fossilized at the time—asked this pointed and poignant question: “When do you take the time to think?” (His name, by the way, was Richard Bjork, and I think he was about age 50 at the time.)

“I’m always thinking,” I glibly replied, flashing thinly disguised indignation at the question and questioner. “I’m on the job 24/7, 365.”

“But when do you stop and take the time to really think?” he insisted.

I initially took this as his lame excuse for supporting time-squandered daydreaming or stealing an afternoon nap. But he went on, addressing the disruptions that likely occur while we’re trying to think: Joe comes and asks for this or that; Mary thinks something is a good or a bad idea; an important meeting mires in desultory discussion and ends with frustration and impatient decisions. Unless one takes the time to pause and think—to imagine, focus, plan—everything we do is merely reacting to people and pieces of paper. And we never get around to creating our own agenda, setting our own goals, planning our own strategies.

Where do we want to go and how to persuade others to support? What is someone likely to want or do, and can that somehow fit into our overall strategy? What really needs to be accomplished in an upcoming meeting and how do we move the discussion to that conclusion? Are we making mistakes or missing opportunities—or threats? And how might some vexatious personal or professional conflict end—not just how do we strike the next blow with a clever rejoinder, but how will the matter eventually be resolved?

These are questions grown-ups ask—and they take and deserve time and thought. Preparation is the difference between professionalism and amateurism. It’s also the difference between maturity and callowness, between effective leadership and frenetic foundering. And preparation takes time.

Time to think is worth setting aside and important to budget. It may be the most important time you spend.

Think about it.

Eric Gilbertson teaches organizational leadership and constitutional law at Saginaw Valley State University. To comment on this article, contact him at erg@svsu.edu.

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