Ideas matter: Set aside time to think

The ultimate form of doing nothing is meditating. I cannot do this. I sit down, shut my eyes, and start worrying about my to-do list.

Then I tell myself I cannot worry about my to-do list, and I worry about how to make my husband do what I tell him. Then I scold myself for being so un-Zen, and I think: Black page, black page, think of black sheet of paper. So I get it, right there in my mind's eye, the black page starts having writing on it, and in mere minutes, I'm back to my to-do list.

Here are some grand thoughts I bet you wish you had: green ketchup for kids, a cartoon network for adults, E=mc2. We all want to have grand ideas. And if they cannot be grand enough to change the world, we at least want to make a little impact at the office.

When was the last time you had a grand 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 will think of something grand.

Grand thinking requires space, flexibility, and time. These are things that are hard to find if you have a life where you balance a job with carpools or bar hopping or long trips to large families. These are also hard things to find if you never leave the office. Grand thinking requires time alone, doing nothing, or almost nothing.

Eve Bunting, a prominent children's book author, once said she got most of her book ideas while she was swimming laps. One of my favorite bosses told me that the reason he took a shower every morning was not to be clean, but to have time to think.

The problem with most peoples' 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. You're probably not a secretary, and you probably don't file, but you probably have the equivalent problem that is running you ragged.

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 are going to have to schedule thinking time and make a commitment to keeping it. Thinking time is not "Any time my boss cancels a meeting with me, 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 do not have a set time, the time will never happen. Thinking time is in your Palm Pilot, 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. I used to be a jog-in-the-park kind of girl, but my knees can't take the concrete anymore. When I first started running on the treadmill, I was shocked to see people reading while they ran– you'd never see that in a park. 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. Not that one does 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.