Over the years many of the finest managers I've known have confided to me what they regard as their deepest, darkest secret. Their confessionals are strikingly similar and run along these lines: "People see me as a very driven person, but what they don't know is that my downtime is when I do a lot of my real problem solving."
Most of the time executives find themselves bombarded with reports, e-mails, telephone calls, fire-fighting, and meetings. If you're like me, you have days you think you're going to scream if you don't get away from the office. It's a natural response to a humdrum, energy-sapping routine.
The answer is to engage in what I call passive innovation. I routinely advise my clients to unplug by taking a drive to a park, the ocean, or into the country with only a blank pad of paper and pen. Think of it as a coffee break for your brain.
"But what'll I do when I get there?" they inevitably ask. "Nothing," I reply. "Just sit or walk and drain your mind of thoughts." The intellect at rest can turn into an inspiration incubator, but we have to learn how to give it time off and then listen to it.
A senior executive at a technology company once told me the most valuable lesson he'd ever had was a seemingly off-the-cuff remark by a friend who had guided his career since college. "He advised me in no uncertain terms," my client recalled, "that the mark of good executives is how much time they spend with their feet up on the desk." I couldn't agree more.
Here are some other tips and tricks overachievers use to clear their minds and open up the neural pathways for breakthrough thinking:
Put on Your Thinking Cap: While you can't force inspiration, you can mentally prepare for a productive session of creative ideas. Setting aside time for the specific purpose of "doing nothing" can train your mind to be open to the process.
Create a Private, Contemplative Space: Superman has his Fortress of Solitude, Charles Darwin found inspiration walking along his circular "thinking path," and Ernest Hemingway brought his fiction to life in a simple Key West cottage. The atmosphere you create for your personal skull sessions can be quietly contemplative or full of external stimuli. It all depends on what revs up your brain. Experiment with varying locations, times of day, and even your current energy level and mood.
A client once confided in me that before technology intruded into the workplace, he would spend countless hours there, thinking, planning, and doing all the non-urgent things that contributed to making him an effective leader. Today he has to leave the office to escape and unplug. "It's the only way I can do the thinking and planning that make it possible for me to lead," he says. Today he serves in one of the top three executive positions of a Fortune 500 company that develops remote sensing technologies, and he attributes much of his success to his "thinking, not doing" time.
Let Go Via What You Enjoy: A scientist I've coached for many years finds that unraveling complex and sometimes insoluble physics equations relaxes him and makes the ideal springboard for creative thinking. Take a pastime you enjoy and incorporate it into the playground equipment of your business mind. With regular use and practice, it may turn into your own idea factory.
Daydream: Although it is often frowned on as frivolous, researchers now consider the mind's tendency to wander crucial to the thought process and creativity. When in this trance-like "default" state, the brain can connect abstract thoughts in new ways and create associations that may not occur in the waking state, setting the imagination free. Pay attention when you drift away, if even for just a few moments. Out of random contemplation can emerge "Eureka!" breakthroughs.
Capture and Extrapolate: Although the trusty note pad and pen are useful companions on your journeys through the landscape of your creative mind, it's also desirable to hone your ability to remain aware and open to the haphazard inspirations that occur. The owner of a profitable accounting firm serving the small business market once told me that the groundbreaking idea for changing her company's focus came out of a combination of "insignificant" thoughts that she used to write in the top margin of her time planner. During meetings with her clients she would make notes about the biggest challenges they faced staying on top of their company's financials. A recurring comment was that the accountants keeping their books were "off-site" and "not part of the team." She flipped those problems upside down and began offering bookkeepers who worked part-time right in her clients' offices. Small business owners responded favorably, and her accounts tripled in less than a year.
If you find that writing thoughts down breaks the spell, let ideas flow by rolling them off your tongue and into an audio recording. Most smartphones, including the iPhone (AAPL) and BlackBerry, offer voice dictation, which can serve as a more natural way to preserve the moment.
Transform Your Ideas into Practical Solutions: As you become more proficient at the process of "idle time" idea incubation, you'll want to put your thoughts into action. Just as your imagination can free associate using intuition to link unrelated concepts, your conscious mind can place these insights into the context of your work and personal objectives. Make the analysis and execution of the bounty you reap a necessary and natural outcome of your explorations into your inner ingenuity.
The bottom line: We all have an unconscious tendency to sell our mental abilities short by miring ourselves in unnecessarily restrictive, shortsighted thinking patterns. Use mini-vacations for your mind to break free from the forces that keep your untapped creative powers in check. Don't be surprised if you discover your greatest productivity occurs when you're doing nothing at all.