Tune out, turn off, drop everything
Words William Ralston
Photograph Sam Walton
William Ralston on the increasing importance of ‘thinking time.’
It’s been a particularly frantic few months – as busy as I can remember, in truth. In addition to the usual requirements of day-to-day life, there have been a plethora of personal milestones and professional happenings that have made these most recent months some of the most burdensome in my recent memory. Besides moving in with my girlfriend, I had my brother’s wedding – including a stag party in Barcelona – while on a professional level, I’ve spent the last few weeks venturing from one European city to another in the name of journalistic research, all while running a magazine, which continues to grow – and planning the new book for which I recently finalised the contractual negotiations. Just looking back makes my brain hurt.
We are, I appreciate, all busy in our own ways — and the above must not be misconstrued as a grievance. Quite the contrary in fact: wouldn’t life be boring without these hurdles? And I can appreciate now, with a little bit more time to hand, just how much I learned during this period — most notably the importance of ‘thinking time’.
I’ve long seen the phrase kicking about in various magazines and online outlets. Its alleged impacts on productivity and creativity are particularly well publicised, as are the high-profile names who have spoken of their experiences. AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, for example, makes his executives spend 10 per cent of their day – or four hours per week – just thinking; while LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner schedules two hours of uninterrupted thinking time each day. And it doesn’t stop there: Bill Gates has spoken of the importance of taking a week off each year just to reflect deeply, while Warren Buffet says, ‘I insist on a lot of time being spent, almost every day, to just sit and think.’
I first acknowledged the importance of ‘thinking time’ during a stint in Los Angeles. Having been on the road the best part of 12 weeks, my mind and soul were both a little weary upon my arrival. I had, looking back, not had the pleasure of my own company for more than a day ever since I boarded that first plane from Berlin to Athens one sunny morning in early October. From there, I had ventured to Zurich, Bucharest, Manchester, Amsterdam and Mauritius – with a one brief pit stop in Berlin. It was certainly fun and deeply inspiring, that goes without saying — but it’s difficult to find time to ponder when you’re being hosted by someone or drifting from one airport to another. I had been in somebody’s company almost the entire time.
Los Angeles was the last stop on this tour. I was in town for some meetings and was staying with two work colleagues in Venice, right next to the boardwalk. It was a large four-bedroom house with a bunch of coffee shops, clothes stores, and restaurants just seconds away – in five minutes you could have your toes in the ocean. Each morning, while enjoying breakfast on the porch, you could look out to Santa Monica pier, Malibu – and even further down the coast on a good day. I can think of few more beautiful spots in which to live and work — a real haven in a city that can often feel overwhelming.
For the first few days, my mind remained muddled and clouded, trying to adapt to my new surroundings while processing the information of recent months. Though content, I had no clarity of thought or conscious direction — as if on autopilot, just drifting through life, day by day. I was also finding it increasingly difficult to think creatively. It’s a funny state of mind, one you’re not entirely sure you’re in until you snap out of it — which then happened to me.
The spark for this change was a weekend alone when my hosts were called away for work. Seizing the opportunity, I turned off my phone and spent some time cooking, reading, and walking — freed from the shackles of distraction. Having had time to ponder — to simply reflect on a deeper level — my mind assimilated all that had gone before and felt clear again. So elated was I, I remember calling my mother and girlfriend on the Sunday to share the news of my breakthrough, which admittedly seems a little over the top, in hindsight. Nonetheless, I promised to myself from that moment that I would begin allocating time into my days where I would just ‘think’, and even wrote it into my resolutions at the turn of the year.
But I forgot. Life became busy once again and the one-hour window reserved for self-reflection was soon eroded into nonexistence. It was only during a recent trip to France that I was reminded of its value – albeit by chance, once again. When work brought me to Geneva, I took the chance to visit some friends in nearby Les Contamines, a picturesque ski resort in the French Alps. At this point, I was at something of a dead end with my writing. I simply couldn’t find the ideas – but some quiet time in the mountains, incompatible with many modern-day technologies, proved the perfect remedy. Feeling free and inspired after many country walks, ideas began popping into my head and gave me all the answers I had been seeking.
Since then, I have taken measures to ensure I have some ‘thinking time’ each week. This small part of daily life is so often overlooked by many. Answers and creativity do not come from the occupied mind; they come when the mind is still – this is why ideas often come in the shower, or when you’re walking, for example. But we live in a world of information overload, meaning that we must now take measures to make space, free from distraction.