Have you ever noticed that some of your best ideas come to you when you are on vacation? It’s a common phenomenon. And there are three good reasons that it happens so frequently:
1. When you are far away from the quotidian emergencies of your busy life, you can begin to see the big picture.
2. When you are in a relaxed atmosphere, it’s easier to remember what really matters to you.
3. When you are out of your common element, the creative part of your brain is stimulated in new and different ways.
The away-from-the-office experience is almost always rejuvenating as well as productive – and I’m not just talking about being on vacation. This is the reason many corporations sponsor working retreats. But you don’t have to wait for your company to whisk you away. You can schedule your own idea-generating mini-retreat. I’ve been inspired to do so by an article I read about Bill Gates.
Apparently, he goes on two week-long retreats each year to assess what his company has been doing and where it ought to be going. He calls them his “Think Weeks” – and until very recently, what he does during those seven days “in a cedar forest in the Pacific Northwest” has been “a tightly held corporate secret,” according to Robert A. Guth, a Wall Street Journal writer who scored an interview with Gates at his secluded cottage.
Turns out that what Gates does during his away time is not so remarkable: He spends 15 hours a day reading newspapers, magazines, and company reports. Except for a caretaker who brings him two meals a day (lunch and dinner – typically something like a cup of clam chowder, a grilled cheese sandwich, and a diet Orange Crush), he doesn’t see anyone – even his wife. He sleeps in a small bedroom that takes up a corner of the cottage and shuffles around all day, reading and taking notes. Gates is searching for ideas about trends – trends in digital communications, advances in microprocessor “clock speed,” digital photography, and so on.
The week is a cram session of inputs, followed by a flood of e-mail messages to his colleagues and employees about new ideas, old ideas, existing projects, and proposed ones. He has held some form of Think Week for himself since the 1980s, Guth reports. “Think Week’s material has evolved from heaps of paper reports to a computerized library that has fields for Mr. Gates to enter comments and links to related documents, backed up by paper versions.”
Prior to each Think Week, Gates has his assistants collect papers “from every corner of Microsoft,” according to what they think his priorities should be. It’s actually an “open call for papers that lets employees of any level reach the top with their ideas.” The retreat is not relaxing. He sometimes works 18 hours a day. For breaks, he gives himself five minutes to solve a daily online bridge problem.
Occasionally, he’ll take a short walk. The output is significant. One of his generals said he spent an entire weekend reading through a six-inch printout of Gates’s most recent Think Week comments. And then there are follow-up meetings for weeks afterward. Think about what you have done this past year to get away from the fray and see your business (your career, your personal life) from a longer-term, broader-view perspective.
And consider this: If it works so well for Bill Gates, won’t it work for you? I asked these questions of myself and the answer came back a humble “yes.” But no sooner had it passed my lips than a host of problems rose to mind – reasons I couldn’t afford a week away from the business (or why some of the businesses I consult for can’t afford a week without me): I’ve got to keep my eye on the marketing reports.
The products in development need my critical eye. The energy level of the office will drop in my absence. Somebody might do something really foolish if I’m not there. I could go on. But these are the objections of someone who doesn’t want to (or know how to) let go and let his colleagues do their jobs responsibly. Yes, your company needs you. But not every single day. Consider your time gone an opportunity for everyone to take a step up in terms of responsibility and skills. Plan the time off and then take it.
And don’t sabotage your retreat by pre-planting all sorts of links between yourself and work – so that, just in case you are absolutely needed, you can be reached. To make a retreat work properly, you’ve got to do it the way Gates does: Shut out every one and every thing. No e-mail or phone contact. Yes, you can leave an emergency number – but define what a true emergency is (the office burns down, the CFO is arrested, etc.).
The point is to give yourself the time, space, and quiet to think. To shut out your work… so you can let in the inputs. For Bill Gates, the inputs that stimulate his thinking are newspapers and technical reports. For you, it might be books and magazines. Or inspirational materials. Decide what you need to bring with you and then figure out what kind of schedule will work best for you. I think I’ll start with a two-day test. And to make it an ETR sort of retreat, I believe I’ll divide that time into four Think Sessions, one for each of my four major priorities.
Already, that seems like an ambitious goal – two uninterrupted days by myself. But I’m going to do it. And I expect that I will come away from my mini-retreat with so many stimulating ideas and fresh solutions to old problems – and with so much renewed energy and enthusiasm for my work – that I’ll be ready to schedule another one immediately. Maybe even, like Bill Gates, an entire Think Week.[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]