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Last week I published a longread on what I learned while taking a think week, inspired by one of Bill Gates’ yearly rituals. On the surface, a think break may seem out-of-reach for a lot of people—but I’d argue that taking one is possible regardless of your situation, provided you plan ahead of time. My friend Mike Schmitz (mentioned in the box above) also pushes back against the idea that think breaks are an unnecessary—or even selfish—luxury, including when you have a busy family life.
“The clarity the break provides makes everything else in your life easier,” Mike told me. “Think about the last time you flew on an airplane. They tell you before you even take off to put your own oxygen mask on before assisting anyone else. I view the think break as my oxygen mask.”
Mike’s think breaks are usually a day long. He completely disconnects during that time—it’s as though he’s on a business trip. He makes up for this by taking the kids out every few months so his wife Rachel can have the house to herself or take a weekend on her own. Much like my think week, the insights Mike has gained from his think breaks are illuminating.
I’ve collected a few do’s and don’ts if you’re wanting to plan a think break of your own. Many of these were learned during my own think week—and a few I got from Mike before taking mine.
- Conduct shorter think breaks. Even a few hours can be extraordinarily helpful. This can be as simple as leaving the office at lunch in order to have a phone-free reflection period at a nearby coffee shop.
- Step back from the inessential. This includes social media, digital devices, and anything else that prevents you from experiencing the benefits of solitude.
- Disconnect completely from the internet. It’s worth stepping back from your digital life as much as possible.
- Eat well and invest in your energy. I ate healthy, delicious meals during my think week and had only the occasional drink—easier said than done at an all-inclusive resort. I also made sure to exercise often. The energy you gain from making these choices is worth the time investment and will boost your ability to reflect.
- Consume information that helps you process the ideas and challenges you’re incubating. I read books like Thinking in Systems to help me step back from the systems in my life, and Joyful because one of my intentions for the year is to reconnect with my weirdness.
- Find an enjoyable place to spend your time. This is important whether you’re taking a full think week or a shorter think break. If the latter, visit a nice cafe and indulge in an overpriced latte or whatever makes you happy. For a medium-sized think break, get an Airbnb somewhere outside the city, which may support your thinking and reduce distractions. Put some thought into making your experience as enjoyable as possible—the more fun you have during your think break, the more ideas will come to you.
- Spend some time in the sun (or the snow, if that’s your thing). Perfect for those longer think breaks or think weeks! I left Canada for Jamaica on a day when 35 centimeters of snow (14 inches) fell on my city. The most important thing is stepping out of your home environment—unfamiliar places make our brains think differently.
- Over-structure your week. Some things are worth planning: it’s good to decide which challenges you want to incubate, and what time periods you want to plan for (quarterly or yearly, or goals for each of your hotspots). You can also plan to reflect on what’s going well in your life, and what you want to do differently. But don’t have too much structure—when you work some “white space” into your think break you give your mind the chance to wander, which lets it automatically solve problems.
- Conduct your think break at a busy resort. Resorts are a great place to unwind, spend time with family and friends, and soak up the sun. But I learned the hard way that they’re not the best place to conduct a think week. This is because it’s difficult to find solitude. If you do plan your think break at a resort, choose an adult-only resort and try to visit during off-season when it’s quieter.
- Step back from everything. Going into this experiment I had planned to not talk to my wife at all. But as the week went on, I found I simply wanted to. It’s okay to change your plans, or to decide to keep up important connections. Make intentional tweaks as the week goes on.
A few hours to reflect on your work and life can go a long way. A think break is an investment in your future productivity, and you’ll more than earn back the time you spend reflecting on your work and life.