Do You Have Time to Think and Reflect?

Do you ever have the nagging feeling that you don’t have time to really think anymore? You’re not alone. A variety of factors have conspired to rob us of time for reflection about ourselves, our lives, and the problems and issues that our clients face.

Today, our minds are rarely silent. The average businessperson receives hundreds of e-mails and voice messages a day, and vacations for many of us are action-packed weeks more likely full of family activities than opportunities for repose and contemplation. “Multi-tasking” is considered a badge of honor by hyperactive overachievers. Commenting on this phenomenon, one CEO wrote, “Whenever I have a free moment now, I turn to e-mail. It’s probably taken away the last few minutes in my life that were available for reflection.” For many modern-day client advisors, solitude unfortunately comes only during long airplane rides, and then the time is often spent working on a laptop computer or making calls from the plane’s phone system.

Regular reflection, however, is a hallmark of great professionals. It allows you to recharge your mental batteries, see things in a new light, and tap into your creativity. Almost all of the great advisors that I have studied have found ways to get away from it all—mentally if not physically—and contemplate their and their clients’ most pressing and intransigent issues.

J. P. Morgan, who was the first relationship banker and the greatest American financier of the 19th century, was an advisor to five US presidents, the Pope, and an assortment of royalty. A notorious workaholic, Morgan drove himself and his banking partners relentlessly. He regularly escaped the hubbub of the financial markets, however, by retreating to his yacht, the Corsair. Moored far out in New York harbor, away from the frenetic pace of the Wall Street, the yacht provided Morgan a seclusion where he would take in the sea breeze, relax, and think. When trying to resolve a difficult negotiation or industrial dispute, Morgan might bring executives out to his boat for several days as his guests. There, he would listen while they talked for hours. Usually, a compromise would slowly be reached as Morgan brokered a solution.

“I lived in solitude in the country,” said Albert Einstein, talking about the sources of his great ideas, “and noticed how the monotony of quiet life stimulates the creative mind.” Some researchers in the field of creativity, in fact, believe that insight occurs during the reflection and relaxation that follows a period of intense activity and work.

Here are some practices that I have found helpful:

  1. Schedule time for reflection about your work or a particular project you're engaged in. I usually block out about half an hour. Don't answer the phone. Push your papers to the side. Doodle, make lists, draw "mind maps" of ideas that come to you. At the end, write down any emerging ideas.
  2. If you fly, use some in-the-air time to brainstorm and write lists of ideas down.
  3. When you're alone, stop worrying and THINK. A lot of our down time is spend worrying about troublesome things in our lives or fantasizing about how we'd like our lives to be. Try to push those thoughts aside and concentrate on an issue. A friend of JP Morgan wrote, "Morgan has one extraordinary asset: The ability to concentrate for five uninterrupted minutes on a problem."
  4. Talk out loud. Run issues by your spouse or a close family member. For many people, talking out loud helps to clarify the problem.
  5. Revisit things during moments of relaxation after a period of intense work. Some studies show that this is when we are the most creative–during a period of rest AFTER a prolonged period of activity.

Where do your best ideas come from? And when do you make time for reflection?



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