Business Bites: Make time to think

Nick Walsh FBDO
ABDO head of corporate development

“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices,” William James

As Silvia Bellezza of Columbia Business School and her colleagues put it: “By telling others that we are busy and working all the time, we are implicitly suggesting that we are sought after.” Managers and leaders may, therefore, be subconsciously reluctant to give up the self-esteem benefits that ‘being busy’ confers1. Nevertheless, it is vital that managers/leaders take time to consider if they are working on the important areas and priorities. This can only be done by taking ‘thinking and reflection time’ each week.

What form thinking/reflection time takes will vary; some may schedule time to think strategically and do this by switching off possible interruptions such as email and phones, and creating a space where they will be uninterrupted. Others might build reflection into a single day, designating Monday mornings, for example, as the time to think. Or they might spread this time over the week, carving out 90 minutes on three days. Reflective thinking can also be combined with other activities, such as taking an afternoon walk or drinking a morning cup of coffee.

Successful business leaders understand the value of making time to think. Bill Gates, for example, was famous for taking a week off twice a year just to think and reflect deeply about Microsoft and its future without any interruption. Similarly, Warren Buffett has said: “I insist on a lot of time being spent, almost every day, to just sit and think”2.

Consider the bigger picture

If you want to consider the ‘bigger picture’, you may wish to reflect on the following five guiding questions as mentioned by Freek Vermeulen2:

1. What does not fit? Ask yourself, of the various activities you engage in, do they make sense together? Individually, each of them may seem attractive, but can you explain why they would work well together; why is the sum greater than the parts?

2. What would an outsider do? Firms often suffer from legacy products, projects or beliefs: things they do or deliberately have not done. Some of them can be the result of what in Organisation Theory is called ‘escalation of commitment’. We have committed to something and determinedly fought for it (perhaps for all the right reasons), but now that things have changed and it no longer makes sense. But we may still be inclined to persist. A good question to ask yourself is: “What would other, external people do, if they found themselves in charge of this business?”

3. Is my organisation consistent with my strategy? In 1990, Al West, the founder and CEO of SEI – the wealth management company that at the time was worth US$195m –found himself in a hospital bed for three months after an accident. He used this time to consider his business. When he went back to work, he slashed bureaucracy, implemented a team structure,and abandoned many company rules. The company started growing rapidly and is now worth about US$8bn. Because of his involuntary thinking time, West did what all business leaders should do: he asked himself whether the way his company was set up was ideal for its strategic aspirations. What would your business look like if you could redesign it from scratch?

4. Do I understand why we do it this way? When asking a business leader, “Why do you do it this way?”, often the answer is, “That’s how we have always done it” and/or “Everybody in our industry does it this way”. Many practices and habits are like that; they once started for perfectly good reasons but then companies just continued doing it that way, even when circumstances changed. Take time to think it through, and ask yourself: “Do I really understand why we (still) do it this way?” If you cannot answer this question, it can most likely be done better.

5. What might be the long-term consequences? The final question to ask yourself, when carefully reflecting on your company’s strategy, is what could possibly be the long-term consequences of your key strategic actions. Often we judge things by their short-term results, since these are most salient, and if they look good, persist in our course of action. However, for many strategic actions, the long-term effects may be different. Strategy, by definition, is about making complex decisions under uncertainty, with substantive, long-term consequences. Therefore, it requires substantial periods of careful, undisturbed reflection and consideration.

Leadership is not just about doing things, it is also about thinking. Make time for it.


1. Clark D. If strategy is so important, why don’t we make time for it? Harvard Business Review. 21 June 2018.
2. Vermeulen F. Five strategy questions every leader should make time for. Harvard Business Review. 3 September 2015.