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How to Make Space to Think

The last year and a half has been a contradiction in many ways. The one we’re talking about today relates to how in our personal lives, many of us had time and space to think and reflect (perhaps for the first time in a very long time) simply because we were stuck at home with nowhere to go and not a lot to do.

However, a lot of us, especially those running businesses or organizations providing essential services to our communities, have been running flat out for the past twenty months. The volume and pace of work and challenges seem to be increasing, so although our days have always been full, we now find ourselves overwhelmed and struggling to catch our breath.

How do we find the time, attention, and focus to plan when our days are a constant barrage of messages, issues, requests, and emergencies? How do we make space to think?

The following seven steps are one approach that we’ve found success with for ourselves and our clients.

1. Be Intentional

You must begin with an intentional decision. Making space isn’t something that will just happen when the time is right. We need to be assured in knowing this is critical work. Work that will impact ourselves, our teams, and those we serve. From that knowledge, we will have the confidence to pause, stop the noise, the movement, and everything around us, so we can actually take a breath and slow down. We can choose to give ourselves the gift of space and time to reflect on what ‘really’ needs to be done, rather than continuing to be swept along in the churn of the day-to-day. This is a conscious choice that only we can make.

2. Step Away for a Day

Literally, step away. Physically removing ourselves from our place of work is non-negotiable. Even if we have the very best of intentions, the likelihood and temptation of distraction is far too great trying to hunker down in our office or a meeting room. Even if they can’t find us, the energy of the environment will still be there, in the air and right outside the door. The best plan is to find a quiet room, somewhere away from work. A place where you can be separated from the action. A place where you can spread out, walk around, and do whatever it is that helps you sort things through.

And we’re not talking about an extended period of time. We’re talking about one day. Six or eight business hours. You’ll be absolutely amazed at what you can accomplish in six hours of ‘uninterrupted’ time. But you have to ensure it’s uninterrupted. Turn on your out of office, saying you will be away from service until tomorrow and happy to respond then. Turn off your email notifications and close Outlook. Silence your phone. The point here is to control any possible distractions. The world won’t end if you’re not reachable for one day. Really.

3. Get it Out Where You Can See it

If it’s going to be dealt with, it needs to come out of your head and be captured on paper. The best way is to just start writing- on large easel-sized paper if you can, or on whiteboard walls if you have them. Do a brain dump of everything in your head that you need to deal with and don’t stop until you can’t think of anything else. (We guarantee you won’t be writing all day.) But if it takes a full hour, or two, or even three, that’s okay. As humans, we keep a lot of the “to-dos, or I shoulds” rattling around in our brains instead of confronting them, so all they accomplish is to amp up our stress levels. The goal is to bring those internal conversations out into the light of day, so they can be addressed.

4. Bucket Things

Now that it’s all there in black and white, create four or five categories or buckets and sort your items into whichever one they seem to belong in. Don’t overthink things. Just get your thoughts divided up into reasonable chunks. You can fine-tune it later, if necessary. We’re doing this to help address the feeling of overwhelm that comes from volume and reaction. We want to get to a place of being proactive and selective.

5. Think

Seems simple enough. And it is. Working your way through each category, allow thirty minutes to reflect on what you’ve captured and think about two deliberate actions or choices you could make to tackle some of the items in that list. You’re not looking for a magic bullet that will solve it all, just an improvement from where things are at now. Your goal is progress, not perfection. And progress feels fantastic!

6. Create Your Hit List

Now, in each bucket choose one of your two actions and capture it on a new sheet of paper. This is your ‘Hit List’. You’ve had time and space to reflect on its importance and how it will improve the work you are responsible for. This is your ‘must do’ the moment you return to work and before you do anything else. These four or five actions are going to move the needle from being paralyzed by overwhelm, to taking control and moving ahead. That knowledge should give you the confidence and discipline to implement.

7. Repeat

Now, go back to being intentional and set a date with yourself to review how you’ve done in a month’s time (any longer and you can lose momentum). Step away again and give yourself space to be reflective. It may only need to be half a day this time, but the same rules apply. Have you succeeded? Then move on to that second choice or action that didn’t make the first Hit List. If not yet, then adjust and choose an action that can help you continue to move ahead. Just keep thinking, keep breathing, keep moving forward. Your goal is to be purposeful, and you will be confident in your direction because you’ve made time and space to think rather than simply reacting in the moment.

Sometimes it helps to do this kind of work with a partner outside your organization that can be objective and help to hold you accountable. Only you will know what is the best fit for you. 😊 But if you try this method out, we’d love to hear how it goes for you.

And lastly, some wise words to remember,

"If you’re going through hell, keep going."

-Winston Churchill


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