Lessons From A Think Week: Taking A Personal Retreat

A couple months ago I tried something that I’ve heard has worked wonders for many people in the past including BIll Gates.  The legend as I remember it was that for two weeks every year Bill would shut out all communication with the outside world, have his assistant slide grilled cheese sandwiches into his office a couple times a day and he’d spend all day and night taking in information and thinking. Apparently, it was during those two weeks when many of the key strategies to how Microsoft built its initial successes were created.

Well, I only had a 5 day week and my initial think week didn’t yield quite as beneficial of results, but it did teach me a few things about setting up a successful think week.

Why a think week you ask?  Let’s start with a different question: when was the last time you spent a significant period of time to just reflect, think and envision or work out plans for the future?  Short spurts of time everyday don’t count – I’m talking about multiple days of deep self interaction.  Think that kind of time would be valuable, that’s why you need a think week.

Here’s some tips on setting up your own:

  • Start a folder in your email or tag in evernote or wherever to start storing all of the ‘stuff’ you want to spend some time on during your week.  This could be amazing articles, one line ‘to-do’ reminders you send yourself, or anything that crosses your path that you really want to get to but think you want more time for.
  • Of course, action is better in many of the items cases so if it’s something that can be finished in less than 10 minutes – do it now.
  • A think week works for working on a specific project too – but that’s almost more like a ‘hackathon’ type week.  This is about thinking on broader range topics, areas and should not (at least) initially be focused on one particular tactical project.
  • Spend the first day or so just getting some things off your to-do list that have been there so you get that feeling of having immediately accomplished something that you should of been doing for the last six months.  This will also make sure you don’t have that thing in the back of your mind the next few days.
  • Ensure you have ample amount of time set aside. It takes a day or two to get out of your typical mindset and start getting your mind ready for the really deep thinking. By the time you get going you don’t want it to be coming to an end, 3 days is probably too short so aim for at least 5-6.  Of course, if you can do 2 weeks, that’s great too.
  • Turn off or at least schedule communication.  This is your think week – not your catch up on email or call that friend you haven’t called back week.  We’re strangled by our communication devices enough on our regular time, get off the grid.
  • Have your supplies already gathered.  Coffee, whiteboards, paper, books, music playlists, whatever you think you might want during that week – have it ready well beforehand.
  • Don’t tell anyone.  Don’t start telling people too far ahead of time, they’ll just give you advice you don’t need and/or try and figure out ways to schedule something during that time because they know you’ll be “free.”
  • Move around.  The intellectual and creative benefits of exercise are obvious. Get your blood flowing during some points of your day even with simple 20 minute walks outside or a hardcore workout that gets you energized and excited to continue to focus.
  • Go somewhere different.  This one depends on whether or not you can focus better when you’re somewhere you don’t normally go or if it’s better where you normally work.  Experiencing new places surely helps with your creativity because of the new experiences and connections it builds in your brain, but this is about which place is going to help you remain focused more.  For me personally, that means not sitting at my normal desk because there I’d get sidetracked thinking about the more immediate things and be itching to do them.
  • Act. If you can do something during that week to get momentum going or at least get started on something you come up with – do it.  This way it won’t end up going on your “after think week to-do list” and then never get done.
  • Reflect.  At the end of the week make sure to evaluate your week, what you would do a little different and how to make the next one even better.  Then, schedule your next one before the week’s through.  If you’re going deep enough this isn’t something you’ll have to repeat every month or even every six months, but once a year at least seems like a good time period.

Whatever you’re doing right now open your calendar and schedule your first think week right now.  The most important thing is to schedule it because if you don’t you’ll just end up going day by day like you are now.

How powerful can you make your think week.  Go.

Matt Kane

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