All of us have a to do list. Whether we write it down or keep it in our heads, the to do list is pretty much standard operating procedure for any professional.
But when was the last time you gave any thought to what you’re going to think about on a given day?
I realize “thinking about what to think about” sounds like useless sophistry or meaningless verbal jujitsu. But please bear with me for a moment.
The freedom to think. Or more specifically, the freedom to choose what to think about is our one unassailable freedom. All the other freedoms we enjoy – press, religion, vote, work, pursuit of happiness, etc. – can be taken away. Witness the billions of people around the globe who live without these and other basic freedoms.
My point is not to deliver a self-righteous sermon about taking our freedoms for granted but to shed light on an unsettling irony – the freedom no one can take away from us, our thoughts, is something very few of us ever think about.
Victor Frankl wrote movingly in Man’s Search for Meaning about his captivity during the Nazi Holocaust. In a horrific environment where he and millions of other innocent people were exposed daily to monstrous evil Frankl discovered the Nazis could take away everything from him, but they could not capture his mind. He could think what he wished about his situation. To the extent he could exercise control over his thoughts, he found he was freer than his captors.
David Foster Wallace talked eloquently in his 2005 “This Is Water” commencement speech at Kenyon College about the true purpose of education. It is to help us learn how to be aware of, to pay more attention to, what we think about. Those that don’t stay attuned to their thoughts run the risk of going through life unconscious, trapped inside of self-centered, “skull sized kingdoms.”
Exercising control of our thoughts is surprisingly hard. Let’s be honest, Wallace is right, the “default setting” for the vast majority of us is to spend most of our time thinking about ourselves, our problems, our needs. We do this reflexively and naturally, so much so that it’s easy to forget or overlook we are doing it.
It takes real effort, will and discipline to remind ourselves of this fact, especially in high stress situations. The narrative inside our own heads can be a form of hypnosis, putting us in a trance that makes it almost impossible to be open to other points of view. But this is so essential to success in both our personal and professional lives.
If you’re anything like me, it won’t just happen. Just like I’m bound to forget to complete certain tasks without a to-do list, if I don’t write down reminders of things I need to think about it’s likely I won’t do it.
Many of the most accomplished leaders in business talk about the importance of scheduling time to think. One of the reasons it’s so easy to lose track of our thoughts and put our brains on autopilot is because we are so over-scheduled to begin with. Too many executives confuse a frenetic pace of activity with actual productivity. Slowing down and consciously choosing what we are going to spend time thinking about is critical to our success.
What I’ve gradually, and all too slowly, come to realize is that what separates the truly high performers, the visionary leaders, innovators, and creative thinkers, is not so much exceptional intelligence, cognitive ability, or work ethic but an extraordinary level of awareness for how and what they think about.
Here’s a suggestion for the next week: create a document with two columns, one with a list of projects or tasks and a second for things you want to think about. Treat the items on the “think” side with same priority as the “task” side. Ideally a few items on the list will encourage you to consider things from a different point of view. My guess is that once you start becoming more aware of what you’re thinking about, a new world of possibilities will open. At a bare minimum it will make you much more attuned to everything going on around you. That in and of itself makes it an idea worth thinking about.