Setting aside time to just think

There are an insane number of timeboxing techniques out there: Pomodoro, the anti-Pomodoro, Dash, (10+2)*5 and so on.

Basically the premise of all these techniques is to set an arbitrary start and end time around a task or set of tasks and focus unwaveringly on that task like you’re in a race until the timer goes off, releasing you to come up for air before plunging back into the fray like a frenzied berserker.

Whilst I can see the technique might be of benefit I have an aversion to anything arbitrary … but there is something to be said for having to resort to such techniques to overcome internal and external distractions to get the job done.

In my line of work in design and analysis I have a mix of idea-creation and domain exploration work, and the more process-like documentation and report-writing. When it comes to writing a user interface specification, research brief or test report there’s certainly a benefit in putting on the headphones with white noise, closing your email client and just crunching through the writing.

Have you considered taking the same intense time-critical approach and applying it to creative thinking? It seems like a paradox … focussing on being unfocused and letting your mind wander.

In Michael Michalko’s book Thinkertoys is a technique called “The Three B’s” method which stands for Bus, Bed and Bath – times during the day when challenges previously incubated through concentration may be solved by your subconscious. The problem is that you may not have time to wait till an idea comes to you during your next shower or while you lie in bed days or weeks later.

Banging your head against a wall is less effective than going to find the tools to do the job properly … but that’s how many of us work. We assume we can’t take time to think, to stop, take a step back and get creative. By working with that assumption we spend days doing what could have been accomplished in just a few hours.

Creative thinking does not need to be done on annual retreats or in your downtime. It’s not a privilege awarded only to visionaries and strategists. You can treat creative thinking just like you do your process work. Timebox it if you want. Put your headphones on, shut down your email client, get out your notepad and just start scrawling: what are you trying to solve, what do you know about the problem, what don’t you know, why are you trying to solve it, draw diagrams, who’s involved, what needs to be done etc.

Go read some books on creative thinking and assemble your own toolkit of favourite techniques. Last week I created an A3 poster with my favourite tools and prompts. It’s not about sitting there staring off into space waiting for ideas to come, however you still need to allow your mind to wander, to free-associate and escape the confines of your current thinking and set of assumptions.

Take the time to think. You can’t afford not to.

See a photo of the creative thinking poster I’ve put together

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