Do you make time to daydream? You might want to start. Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology say that that doing so is actually an indicator of your brain’s efficiency, creativity, and intelligence.
Making time for mental space may seem like a strange concept. I know I never gave it much thought. But I have recently discovered the benefits of setting aside time to think deeply.
As cofounder and CEO of Aha!, I have many day-to-day demands on my time and attention. I often work 12-hour days without a free moment to spare. And yet, I also need to be able to think longer-term about big-picture things that really matter to the future of the company.
This juxtaposition between getting things done immediately and making room for big ideas is a paradox I think many of us face at work. So I made a bold decision: I blocked off a full day each week to give my mind space to explore those deeper topics.
Research by Georgetown University professor Cal Newport backs up this approach. To hit your peak, you need to set aside extended time to focus. (In doing so, you also get to enjoy the satisfaction of committing your full attention to a task.)
Granted, we all lead very busy lives these days, no matter our job titles. Scheduling time to let yourself think freely is probably not at the top of your priority list. But I have found it to be necessary.
For it to work, you need to be mostly free of distractions and looming interruptions. Even knowing that you have an upcoming must-do task or meeting can prevent you from getting into your flow.
Here are five steps to help you get started:
1. Commit to a time
I set aside every Wednesday as a distraction-free day. I call it my “Wonder Wednesday.” When I get it really right, I have no recurring work — no meetings, no to-dos. This creates a space where meaningful introspection and discovery can take hold, with productive results. Even if you cannot set aside an entire day, you can schedule dedicated distraction-free times on your calendar. Tell the team you are unavailable during those blocks, and keep yourself accountable to the time for creative thinking.
2. Make it count
The name Wonder Wednesday is intentional, as it sets the tone for my focus. However, I am not staring at the wall in wonder. I choose a meaningful project or problem to tackle ahead of time. Then I set a measurement for success, such as “I want to come out of today with a new training program designed for the team.” The more purposeful and goal-oriented I am, the more productive I will be.
3. Eliminate distractions
Create the ideal environment for yourself. You may want absolute quiet, like I do. Maybe you like jazz music. If you have the option to work remotely, take it. (Our entire team at Aha! works remotely and is wildly productive as a result.) Discover what works best for you and immerse yourself in that environment for your own no-distraction times.
4. Stay disciplined
The relationship between perseverance and creativity is still not entirely understood, even by researchers. But it is clear that having a time and environment dedicated to any practice enables you to get better at it over time. Strengthening your critical-thinking muscle is not easy. Make a habit out of it and you will find it easier both to stay committed to your dedicated time and to get into the flow of deep thinking.
5. Create space for others
You do not have to be a leader in title to share the importance of making room for mental space. Encourage your team members to set aside their own blocks of time, including coordinating their schedules if necessary. Share with them what has worked best for you, then encourage them to find their own formula for sparking creativity and insight.
I have to admit, I was a bit dubious at first about reserving a whole day without meetings or to-dos. But I had to try something new to create an opening to think more strategically about what was next.
I have come to rely on Wonder Wednesdays. With nothing on my calendar threatening to interrupt me, I can go deep in my work and expand my thinking. And I believe the company is benefitting too.
Some people might consider this a luxury. I rate it as the most important day in my week.
Brian de Haaff is founder and CEO of Aha! His previous two companies were acquired by Aruba Networks and Citrix, respectively.