When was the last time you could say that you were actually “alone with your thoughts”? I don’t mean sitting on a bus checking your Twitter feed, or standing in line at a coffee shop scrolling through your e-mail, or even sitting on a sofa reading a book. I mean genuinely alone with your thoughts.
I was stuck on a concept for a project today, so I went into the woods to think. No music, no podcasts, no other external stimulus, just alone time and space to ruminate. As frequently happens, I came away with a few key nuggets of insight that had been brewing in my mind, but that I’d not really noticed until I got alone with my thoughts.
I’ve discovered that many people – myself sometimes included – are actually afraid to think. Some of it is, in a way, a fear that deep thought yields accountability for action. (If I come up with a great idea, then I’m accountable to act on it!) Most of it, though, is a kind of laziness. It’s much more comfortable to immerse yourself in the thoughts of others, letting the milieu wash over you rather than stilling yourself and considering your life, your work, and your relationships in a thoughtful manner.
If you are a writer, you are not paid to churn out words, you’re paid for your perspective. It’s your ability to synthesize that communicates your unique value.
If you are an entrepreneur, your ability to see patterns, connect dots, and anticipate issues is what really sets you apart (in large part) from your competitors.
If you are a manager, your capacity for noticing those tiny undercurrents in team dynamics in order to stem them or leverage them is a huge part of the value you provide.
If you are a designer, it’s the architecture of your concept from which everything else flows.
None of the things above happen without intentional, sustained thought. Over time you may become skilled and experienced enough to “shoot from the hip” and still hit a lot of targets, but in truth you’re probably compromising your best work in doing so.
How to get “alone with your thoughts”
About fifteen years ago, I heard a friend say that the best practice he’d ever developed was plopping down in a chair first thing in the morning with a notebook and staring at the wall. I thought he was out of his mind until I started doing the same thing. It’s amazing how many thoughts pass through your mind, slipping just beneath the level of your consciousness simply because you aren’t listening for them. Try it in earnest.
1. Dedicate 15-20 minutes first thing in the morning, before your day ramps up.
2. Grab a notebook, pen, and a comfortable spot.
3. Space out. You can close your eyes if you’d like, or even treat this as a form of meditation. However, unlike traditional meditation (in which the idea is extreme focus on a central thing, like your breathing or a mantra) the goal here is to actually pay attention to the flitting thoughts that cross your mind, and to follow them.
4. Write down anything that seems odd, anything that you think might require more thought, or any intuitive hunches that come to mind.
5. If something seemingly important comes to mind, follow that thought, build on it, and see where it goes.
You can repeat this practice a few times per day as a way of capturing your inner dialogue, or to identify what’s actually going on in your brain when you’re not stuffing it with stimulus from your environment.
Another similar practice (that I’ve used to great effect!) is Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages, which was introduced in her best-seller The Artist’s Way. Cameron suggests filling three full pages with longhand stream of consciousness writing first thing in the morning as a way to relieve anxiety, identify areas of stress and opportunity, and to get the “gunk” out of your mind before starting in on your work. As she writes on her blog, “Morning Pages give us a safe place to vent our hidden emotions.They urge us to be true to ourselves. They reward our honesty with forward motion. It is nearly impossible to write Morning Pages and remain stuck.”
Regardless of your method, please take my encouragement to spend some time alone with your thoughts and to pay attention to what’s actually happening in your mind. You’ll be surprised at how many dots you’re already connecting, if you were only listening.
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Last modified: December 28, 2022
Great reminder: “If you are a writer, you are not paid to churn out words, you’re paid for your perspective. It’s your ability to synthesize that communicates your unique value.”