Success Builders Inc. Article of The Month
March, 2002
Taking Time To Think


By Barbara Poole


One of the objects I most remember from my childhood was a little pocket-sized notepad my Dad used to carry with him when he went off to work in the morning. This particular notepad had a well-worn tan leather cover with a one-word proclamation on the front. It said, simply, "Think."

Thinking has become a rare commodity in today's fast-paced, techno-crazy business arena. One of the questions I typically ask in the early stages of coaching a new corporate team is, "When do you, as a group and as individuals, stop and take time to think?" After a few moments of awkward silence, I usually get a response like, "Hardly ever. There's just no time for it."

No time to think. Stop and let that sink in for a minute. We're so busy doing, tackling the next item on the list, that thinking often takes a back seat. Despite what we might want to believe, there's this unspoken little assumption that prevails in many businesses: time spent thinking, contemplating, wondering, brainstorming, mulling things over…is time wasted. If it doesn't produce immediate results or add tangible value, there's no time for it.

I wrestle with this dilemma in my own life. A self-professed writing junkie, I publish a biweekly column in a local newspaper, a biweekly ezine, and this monthly article. So deadlines are a constant presence in my work. When I'm rushed and caught up in a "doing" mode, I often find myself struggling for ideas on what to write about. On the other hand, when my calendar has some breathing room and down time, I end up in this playground of great ideas and possibilities that allows the words to literally come tumbling out onto paper. The creative process requires a certain amount of "mental space" for the observations, connections and stories that will spark a great idea and give it room to grow.

In his "Seven Habits" works, Stephen Covey distinguishes between what is "urgent" and what is "important". While the urgent category in most organizations includes some legitimate critical business issues, it also includes a lot of fire-fighting, avoidable crises and adrenaline-hooked behavior. Shifting away from the tyranny of the urgent requires taking time to pause, to think, to reflect, to consider, and to ask "What if?" kinds of questions. It also requires that this activity be valued, despite the fact that it may not produce immediate results.

There is a well-known Zen Koan -- an ancient Buddhist story with a message about life – that illustrates the importance of making room to think and cultivate ideas. In this story, a Japanese master meets with a student who has come to learn about Zen. While they are talking, the Master offers the student some tea. They continue chatting, as the Master begins pouring the tea. He keeps pouring and pouring, until the teacup is full and begins overflowing. Distracted, the student interrupts the Master to point out that the cup is full. "Master," he says, "The cup is overflowing. No more will go in." The Master gently replies to him, "Like this cup, you are full of your own judgments and habits and opinions. In order for me to show you Zen, you must first empty your cup and create space for new ideas and possibilities."

Taking time to think is how we shift from being overfull and missing connections to a place where we make room for possibilities. In organizations, taking time to think is what leads to breakthrough solutions and cutting edge ideas. Where and when do the opportunities to think show up in your environment? Resist the temptation to fill them up with stuff, and simply let your mind wander. You may be surprised at where it takes you.

©Barbara Poole, Success Builders, Inc., 2002

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