Workplace Doctor: Build in personal time to take stock

As a project manager I have a busy working schedule filled with meetings, more meetings and lots of paperwork. But as the leader, I sometimes need some time just to think – to be able to stand back, view the company as a whole and strategise. How do I schedule in some “thinking time” into my day to ensure I stay on top of the bigger picture? ST, Dubai

I am writing this on a sunny Thursday morning in a quiet coffee shop in Newport, US. A research project finished yesterday and my flight back to Dubai is not until this evening. I am grateful for this rare opportunity between projects to think and strategise about future directions and upcoming challenges. It’s almost like the hamster has been released from the wheel, even if just for a few hours.

As I look at next week’s meeting schedule I realise today’s slower pace came at the perfect time. We spend so much of our working lives running between meetings and managing projects. In addition, we rush to commitments with family and friends, and other pastimes. However, for those of us in positions of responsibility, as well as managing our own work, we need to allocate mental energy to think about the company as a whole, in terms of current and future performance.

The only way to secure that is to make the effort to mentally “step away”. We often use analogies to describe leadership and management, and sometimes refer to it as like a battle. There are some occasions where you need to be with the troops fighting on the ground, inspiring others, meeting challenges head-on and defeating opponents one by one.

However, as a leader, you actually need more time up on the hill, observing the battle and consulting the generals you put around you to lead your side to victory. From my experience, this actually requires you to physically step away from your office, even if it’s just to the nearest meeting room or coffee shop.

Scheduling in some thinking time is paramount, not only for your success as a leader, but also your own and the well-being of others. So simply running from meeting to meeting without the appropriate time allocated to think these big decisions through is a recipe for failure. When under pressure, tired or just unable to think clearly, we are extremely susceptible to bias in our decision-making, often using too much emotion, our gut instinct, or basing the decisions we make today on a previous decision we made in a completely different context at a very different time. Basically, due to lack of time and energy, our complex and sophisticated brain takes a cheeky shortcut.

Imagine, for a moment, you are considering moving the company’s offices to a new location (something you are in favour of). If you do not give yourself the time and don’t have the energy to properly evaluate this decision, you may fall for a confirmation bias. This occurs when you place extra value on your own favoured belief (to move), failing to search impartially and objectively for opposing evidence.

Avoid these decision traps and introduce some thinking time into your day; schedule and protect this time. It needs to be a proactive effort to think broadly and clearly, rather than a reactive response to being shattered and wanting a break.

A director I used to work with once told us that he scheduled meetings with himself at the same time each morning. Although initially thinking the pressure may have finally got too much for him, we soon realised the benefits of this action, and started to replicate this ourselves.

Doctor’s prescription:

The challenge of leading is a complex one in today’s changing business world and the ability to “step away” to consider the bigger picture is fundamental. To do this effectively requires time, energy and practice, so that it becomes a habitual part of your working life. Giving yourself the time to do so will not only help you on a personal level, but also improve the quality of the decisions you make for the business.

Alex Davda is a business psychologist and consultant at Ashridge Business School, based in the Middle East. Email him at for advice on any work issues.

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