Dec
09

Making Time for Think Time and Passion Time, even at Work

“There is never a day we come in and there are only a few things we need to do,” explains an Obama staffer in a Newsweek cover story last month about how overwhelming presidential responsibilities have become. The story makes clear that, for the President and people working with him, there is not enough “bandwidth,” not enough “time to catch your breath” during the day. “Lincoln had time to think,” explains one history professor. “That kind of downtime just doesn’t exist any more.”

Sound familiar? We are all our own president today — each of us the President of what every 21st century career counselor will refer to as the Brand called You — more than ever stretching our personal bandwidth to meet unceasing demands to get it all done. Time to think or downtime at work have become luxuries for most, and even much of what many of us consider free time is spent just trying to keep current: Checking our email, catching up with Facebook, gulping down some news, reading a blog like this (p.s. Thanks).
But for creativity to thrive in our lives — and for innovation to reign in any organization — we need that think time and downtime, that free time and play time, even at work. More than ever at work.

“We need to reinvent free time,” writes Nancy Gibbs, in an excellent essay about invention for Time Magazine last month. Read it here. In the same issue, Time features the Best Inventions of 2010, celebrating the latest innovations of the year, ranging from jetpacks to spray-on hair, highlighting the very technological breakthroughs that require the time, experimentation and play that are too often in short supply. “One thing technology can’t give us,” writes Gibbs, “is time for serendipitous discovery.” Here’s more from Gibbs:

Many of us are too busy keeping up to pause for tinkering, conceiving, concocting or devising. Technology, that bullying child of progress and prosperity, gives us ever finer tools of invention even as it denies us the time to use them. We are so wired, so networked and so well equipped that one person now does the job five people used to, thus hoisting productivity while precluding creativity.

It seems we’re on the verge of getting our jet packs — but no one has yet managed the time machine. Or better yet, the time expander. So we’ve got to play tricks on ourselves: schedule free time, however counterintuitive that may seem. Deep immersion in a task — no distractions, no interruptions — can give the illusion that time itself is receding. We feel lighter, braver, our brains more nimble; we free ourselves to try and fail and try again. I’ve always envied the Google engineers their “20% time”: the one day a week they are told to allocate to a kind of intellectual R&D, working on projects that aren’t part of their normal job description. This speaks to one of the ironies of innovation: too much freedom makes it harder, too little makes it impossible. But if we were ordered by our bosses to spend even one hour a week brainstorming, blue-skying, free-associating, I imagine the rest of the week would become more creative as well.

Dan Pink, the ever-insightful author who spoke last month at the Creativity World Forum in Oklahoma last week, tackles the issue of play in this wide-ranging Blogtalkradio segment. Having time to play, to do things for their own sake on your own time, he says (start interview at 10:58), is essential both to human motivation and to creativity itself. “People are creative in situations where they have freedom and autonomy to explore,” he explains, referring to Google’s “20% Time,” where unofficial projects became highly profitable innovations such as GoogleNews and Gmail. This is what I call “Passion Time,” where employees are empowered to pursue passions during the workday along side their other work. Pink refers to this as a “form of recess from work,” like a “Spring break,” which is how he describes Twitter’s recent “Hack Week,” which allowed employees to work on whatever they wanted. He tells the story of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics invention of graphene, which came outside of regular work time research during “Friday night experiments,” which was more of a play time.

As Pink explains, this idea of more autonomy, having this passion time to pursue creative ideas at work, is an “idea that is really spreading.” Think Time, Free Time, Play Time or Recess — whatever you want to call it — is becoming more common in the most innovative organizations, where leaders know their most creative resource comes from the unique brains and passions of their employees.

In these days of overload, we now need to be proactive about how we spend our time, actually scheduling it into our days. So give yourself — and/or your employees and collaborators — the gift of time set aside just to think, scheme, tinker and play. Give it a name, put it on your to-do list and see what happens.

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