I work with business owners and leaders who have had a tremendous amount of success, long before meeting me. Typically, when they reach out to me, it’s not because they’ve stopped seeing success. It’s because it’s challenging to take that success to the next level. In other words, the tactics that got them to where they are today won’t get them to the next level.
One of the very first things I ask clients to do is track how they spend every single minute of the day. I ask them to do this for a full week. And when I say every minute, I mean every minute. If they go on LinkedIn for eight minutes, I want to know about it. If they’re in a meeting for 63 minutes, I want to know about that too. You get the idea.
I’m sure you can also surmise that it’s not a very popular exercise. But it works. Here’s how.
Once those seven days are up, I ask my clients the following question: “Where was your thinking time?” If they stare back at me with a blank expression (which is more common than you might think) I try again: “you know, the time in your calendar specifically devoted to thinking about your future, to creating, to exploring new opportunities and ways to think?”
Usually, this is followed by an awkward silence.
What I’m trying to communicate to my clients is this: if we don’t own our schedules and actually pencil in time to think, those opportunities don’t happen.
There was a time in my life when I didn’t do this. Back when I was a traveling keynote speaker, living out of suitcases and airport waiting rooms, my then-coach was always on me about my time management. I distinctly remember her asking me to look at my calendar and figure out when my next free day was.
“Oh, that’s easy,” I said. “It’s in 15 days. I’ll be flying that day…”
Promptly, she cut me off. “No, I want to know when is the next day you have zero plans.”
I shuffled through my calendar and, horrified, realized my next totally free day was 39 days away. “Huh,”
I thought. “No wonder I’m a bit burnt out.”
I’ve since learned how crucial it is to give yourself time – and I mean really give yourself time – to think. I don’t know about you, but my best ideas don’t come to me in boardrooms or Zoom meetings or conference calls. They come to me in the shower, or on a walk in the park, or on vacation, or while I’m sleeping. In other words, I do my best thinking when I have nothing else to distract me.
Airplanes are a perfect example of this theory in practice (or, at least, they used to be – before they started offering in-flight Wi-Fi.) Back in the day, without the entirety of the world wide web beckoning me from my pocket, I would dream up all kinds of ideas on airplanes. Nowadays, I get the same effect on subway cars (here’s hoping the Toronto Transit Commission doesn’t introduce in-service Wi-Fi anytime soon.)
Bottom line: we need to create the conditions for our brains to get, well, creative. We live in an incredibly distracted world. Making time to think and create is an extraordinary gift we give to ourselves. But we need to actually schedule it –daily.
About five years ago, I started my journey with Strategic Coach. One of the core principles of this program is the importance of identifying each day of your week as a Focus Day, a Rest Day, or a Buffer Day. On Focus Days, you shut down all distractions and work solely on your future self or company. On Rest Days, you commit to well, resting and relaxing. Buffer Days make up probably 99 percent of the population’s every day. These are the days where you do a little bit of everything – work, social media, other distractions, etc.
Learning how to actually schedule my Focus Days, Rest Days, and Buffer Days was really challenging. It took me a long time to get into the habit, but once I did, I can honestly say it was life changing. I started by committing myself to something I called ‘Championship Monday.’ Every Monday, I would go to the local public library with only two rules in mind: 1) Turn off your phone, and 2) Work solely on ‘Future Me’ or ‘Future Company’ activities. It sounds simple, but it was extremely difficult – at first. I so clearly remember my first Champion Day. I was so excited. I went and got a large coffee, got to the library, sat down, turned my phone off, and then thought: “Now what?” Within five minutes, I was sheepishly reaching for my phone.
Luckily, I stuck with the practice, and now it’s a habit I’ve kept. More than 80 percent of the work I’m doing now got its footing on those Focus Days, my Champion Mondays.
At this point, I’m fully aware that you might be thinking: “Well, Shawn, that sounds great, but there’s no way I can schedule a full day every week just to think.” To that, I say: start with 30 minutes. Right this minute, I want you to slot 30 minutes into your calendar for thinking time. Then I want you to schedule 30 minutes at the same time tomorrow, and again for the day after, and again for the day after that. Make sure it’s always the same time (trust me on this one – it works). During that focused 30 minutes (or 60 if you’re feeling brave) I want you to turn your phone off and work on one topic or question that will bring you closer to where you want to be in the future. Whatever you do, don’t use this
time for day-to- day stuff. You can do that any other time. This 30 (or 60) minutes is just for creating your Future Self and Company.