Think about it: Schedule quiet time to exercise your brain

Everyone wishes they’d had one or two great ideas in life– if not grand enough to change the world, at least enough to make a little impact at the office.

When was the last time you had an epiphany in an important meeting? Probably never. The more important the meeting, the more important it is to think before you go. And the more important the audience, the more tense you are, and the more unlikely it is that you’ll think of something grand.

Grand thinking requires space, flexibility, and time, but thes things are hard to find in a life where you balance a job with carpools, bar-hopping, or long trips to see families. Grand thinking requires time alone, doing nothing.

The problem with most people’s schedules is that they work hard to get ahead, but the real way people get ahead is by having good ideas. You can file and file and always be trying to catch up on filing, or you can stop and rest, and think of a new filing system that will keep you from falling behind.

Spring makes everyone feel like ditching work for just a little bit– it's exciting to have warm enough weather to wander outside to do your thinking there. Harness this feeling by taking this time to make a new routine for thinking.

Thinking doesn't take ten minutes. It takes ten minutes just to stop thinking about all the stuff you could be doing at work instead of thinking. You’re going to have to schedule thinking time and make a commitment to keeping it—and that’s not saying, “Any time my boss cancels a meeting, I'll use the time to think."

Even if your boss cancels on you every day, that’s giving your boss control of your thinking time. Thinking time is not "some time on Saturday," because if you don’t have a set time, the time will never happen. Thinking time is in your smartphone, leveraging the "repeat date" function. Thinking time is in your wall calendar, in red felt tip, so you can't miss it and can't erase it.

I do my best thinking on the treadmill. When I first started running on the treadmill, I was shocked to see people reading while they ran. I wondered when these people emptied their brains if they were using the best brain-emptying time to fill their brain.

I also do good thinking on the subway. When I first moved from LA to NY, I suffered car withdrawal. I missed my stereo. I missed my leather seats. Now I realize that the mindlessness of riding the subway is a gift for good thinking. I stare into space. I relax for the ride. I wait for an idea to beseech me. One doesn’t arrive every day, but a big step toward having a good idea is being available with a clear mind so that idea has a place to land.

So during the next two weeks, when things are fresh and hopeful, practice clearing your mind. And get used to it, so that when summer comes, full of too-hot temperatures and overscheduled vacation time, you’re one of those people who has thinking time in indelible ink on your calendar.
Penelope Trunk
has started several companies and worked for many more. She penned this column several years ago, but she's busy with new things–- too busy to write new columns.