How I Manage ‘Thinking’ Time

Earlier this year, I asked what you’d like to know about how I get things done. I received many interesting requests, more than fit in a single post. So, I’m covering aspects of my setup in separate entries. This is the first of the series.

Rather than start with a tool or method, I’ll address a question asked by Andrea Tanzi:

Why start here? Tools come and go, but time is a constant. It underlies everything else. ‘Thinking time,’ as Andrea put it, is an especially limited resource. There are so many demands on our attention!

By ‘thinking time’ I mean focused time — i.e., moments when I can advance my work, learn, and write without distraction. The aspiration: to move things along by entering a state of flow. (A good book on this is Cal Newport’s Deep Work.)

It’s possible to think with other people (e.g., in a workshop setting), but for me, ‘thinking time’ is solo time. My days are crowded with interactions with others. They’re critical to getting things done — but not sufficient.

Being productive requires blocking off time to focus without distractions. I don’t get as much solo thinking time as I’d like. I’ve carved what little I have out of daily life through what some people would consider radical measures.

For example, my family hasn’t owned a TV in almost eight years. The average American spends four hours per day watching TV. Some is good, but most is fluff. I’m lucky that my wife and I are aligned on this: there are better uses for our time.

This isn’t to say we don’t consume any entertainment. I often watch a bit of YouTube before going to sleep. Some is babble, but I’ve also learned a lot. (Including how to reupholster furniture.)

And although we don’t own a TV, we have an LCD projector. We keep it stowed until Friday, when it comes out for family movie night. We use it over the weekend, and it goes back to storage on Sunday night.

Not having a TV frees a surprising amount of time. But I suspect many people recoil at the idea. They can’t bear not knowing what’s happening with the current hit show or their favorite sports team. Some people also get the news from TV.

I don’t miss any of it. Alas, I’m the only adult in the Western hemisphere who hasn’t seen Game of Thrones and doesn’t know who’s in the playoffs. Awkward! (Less so now that I’m not going places; gig drivers use TV for small talk.)

It’s a small price to pay. I’m not drawn to the lives of Tony Soprano or the Tiger King, don’t follow sports, and find much TV news biased. For me, eschewing TV is the easiest concession towards making more time to think.

Another ‘radical’ measure is waking at ‘unreasonable’ hours. While working on the fourth polar bear book and on Living in Information, I started every day at 4 am. After a light breakfast, I wrote alone for three hours.

Currently, I start at 4:45 am. This doesn’t give me as much thinking time as I’d like (I work best in 3-hour blocks), but the additional 45 minutes of sleep help.

I didn’t get enough sleep while working on the books. By the end of both projects, I was burned out. I caught up by suspending my early morning routine. I missed it terribly. 4:45 seems more sustainable.

Good sleep is important if you want to be productive. For the past four years, I’ve tracked my sleep using the Sleep Cycle app. I recommend it for understanding sleep patterns so you can make better choices.

So, no TV and waking up before 5 am. These may seem like radical measures to many people. But the next step is where I’m likely to lose you. It’s still a bit of an experiment, but one that’s produced great results so far.

During the pandemic, I cut caffeine and alcohol out of my life. No coffee in the morning. No tea. No colas. (I haven’t had a Coke in over fifteen years.) No wine with dinner, no beer after work, no cocktails. (No other drugs either, of course.)

Why do this? Health is part of it; I won’t get into that here. (There are arguments for and against.) More to the point, I’m concerned with the quality of my attention during the day.

I’ve written before that I consider consciousness a type of instrument, one that must be maintained and mastered. Alcohol and caffeine severely alter its performance characteristics.

Tweaking consciousness with external substances introduces unwelcome variability in the quality of my attention. I’d rather have a ‘clean-sounding’ instrument than one that’s artificially amped or muted.

I understand some people can’t start their day without the kick of coffee. Frankly, it was hard for me too during the first three days. But after that hump, I didn’t need it — and actually felt clearer than before.

This may sound unworkable. These substances are ingrained in our routines and social interactions. Coffee, like alcohol, is a social lubricant. (“Let’s meet for coffee.”) Cutting it out was especially hard for me, given I’m an early riser.

A trick that worked for me was realizing that part of what I got from the first cup in the morning was 1) caffeine, 2) ritual, and 3) warmth. So, I switched to drinking a cup of hot water, sans coffee. Two out of three ain’t bad.

The pandemic has disrupted social patterns, which sucks. But the situation also offers opportunities to experiment without loss of face. Quitting caffeine and alcohol has improved my thinking time. I hope this measure survives the lockdown.

I’ll end with a more pleasant ‘thinking time’ practice: long baths. Soaking in a tub with a book is one of the pleasures of my life. I often spend an hour per day reading like this. My mind is especially focused in the warm solitude of the bath.

The Kindle Oasis is great for this use case. It’s light, easy to operate with one hand, and waterproof. I’ve read many books this way. I annotate them and use Readwise to synch with my note-taking system. This will be the focus of a future post.

For now, I’ll summarize by saying that quality thinking time is essential to me. I prioritize it over things like TV, coffee, and sleeping in. It’s not for everybody, but time here is limited. We owe it to ourselves to use it intentionally.

I’d love to hear how you manage your thinking time. Are there habits or techniques that work for you? Have you experimented with any ‘radical’ approaches? Perhaps something simple yet unexpected? Let me know.

Cover photo by Julius Schorzman (CC BY-SA 2.0)