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Changing the Clocks: The Present of Time

For innovation, you'll need the gift of time.

“Spring forward, fall back.”

It’s once again that time of year where millions push their clocks back an hour to mark the end of daylight saving time.

It’s never difficult to find a local news channel running a lighthearted segment on the time change. You know, the one where they interview a bunch of residents, asking them: “What are you going to do with an extra hour this Sunday?” Invariably, the answer is always a resounding “Get more sleep!”

Although sleep is fine and good, I believe we’re missing an opportunity when we roll back the clocks — an opportunity to give ourselves something we woefully neglect during most weeks: time to think.

Much like fire departments use the biannual clock change as a means to remind you to replace the batteries in your smoke detectors, I’d like to use this occasion to remind you that true creativity and innovation can come only when you give yourself the time you need to think.

And in our modern world, it seems as if time is running out.

The Scarcity of Time

Last year, Inc. Magazine unveiled the results of a survey Vistage conducted of 1,432 CEOs across the country. In this survey, CEOs were asked to rank the top barriers to innovation at their companies.

The №1 response? Lack of time.

That’s right. Across thousands of companies, leaders in charge believe that the biggest thing holding them back from more innovation is simply time.

When I read this report, I wasn’t surprised in the least. It mirrors similar studies I conducted at Pixar, Lucasfilm, ESPN, Disney Parks, and others while serving as head of creativity and innovation at The Walt Disney Company. It has also been the most common response I’ve heard from audiences in the nearly 150 keynote addresses and consulting sessions I’ve run in my time since Disney.

It’s clear everyone is simply out of time. But why does this matter for innovation?

Why Time Is Innovation’s Secret Ingredient

Where are you when you get your best ideas? The shower? The car? The treadmill?

No matter your answer, I can guarantee that it wasn’t “my desk at work.”

Why is that? To put it simply, work does not allow us time to think. Our weekly calendars look like one gigantic bar code. And from the moment we arrive until the moment we leave each day, there’s barely a second allocated to actually stopping and thinking. Without taking time to think, how can you possibly expect to get great ideas?

Did you know that much of your brain’s functions are carried out by the subconscious mind instead of a conscious one? That’s right: A significant portion of your brain’s thinking potential is locked away in your subconscious, just waiting to be unearthed.

The problem? It’s protected by what’s known as the reticular activating system, a sort of door within your brain that keeps your conscious and subconscious separated. Not surprisingly, studies show that when you’re in a go-go-go state (similar to the one most of us experience at work), that door between our conscious and subconscious mind remains firmly closed. And thus, we are cut off from what could be our greatest ideas.

So when I say time to think is the biggest barrier to innovation, I say it with zero hyperbole. Without it, we’re wasting away the vast majority of our thinking potential!

The biggest companies in the world have actually come to realize how massive a problem this is, and they’ve gone to great lengths to build a culture where “time to think” is encouraged. Steve Jobs loved to get away from his desk and take walks to think — so much so that when he designed the new Pixar corporate campus, one of his main priorities was having a layout that encouraged walking and “unplanned collaboration” via run-ins with different teams throughout the day.

Likewise, Google offers nearly every employee “20% Time,” a policy that encourages employees to take 20% of their time to work on projects and ideas outside of their day-to-day responsibilities. And of course, many of you may have heard about Bill Gates’ biannual “Think Week,” where he disconnects and heads to a cabin in the woods to do nothing but think about big-picture ideas.

It’s clear that the world’s top innovators recognize the need for setting aside time to think. But how can you make this work within your own business and life?

How to Give Yourself (and Your Employees) Time to Think

By now, you hopefully understand just how crucial it is to give yourself and your teams time to think. But putting this into practice? That’s an entirely new challenge. Thankfully, there are several tangible steps you can take to get started today:

1. Create a “think day” for your company. Instead of leaving it up to your teams to find time to think (something that will likely result in little or no change), why not schedule this thinking time for them?

Perhaps you start with the first Friday of every month. Carve out two to three hours on everyone’s schedule and create a series of mini “thought sessions” where team members work with colleagues (preferably from departments they seldom interact with) to generate big ideas to problems facing your company and industry.

When done correctly, these once-a-month sessions could prove to be a gold mine of ideas for your organization.

2. Encourage time away from desks. Although many of us are still working fully remote, leadership could still find ways to encourage more time spent away from our desks (upon our return to the office, of course).

Leaders such as Steve Jobs knew that staring at a computer screen for hours on end was not the best way to generate creative thinking. That’s why he spent so much time redesigning his office spaces at Pixar and Apple to encourage employees to get up and walk around. Exercise is a great way to open up the reticular activating system and access your subconscious thought, so encouraging employees (and yourself) to get up and move during the day will open up entirely new levels of creative thinking.

3. Give employees time to work on pet projects. Google’s famous “20% Time” policy has led to some of the company’s most creative (and profitable) innovations, including Gmail, Google Maps, and AdSense. By giving its teams the freedom to pursue ideas of interest on their own time, Google is, in effect, allowing its employees to carve out one day a week to think.

Although 20% might be hard to give at first, what if you offered your employees two to four hours a week to work on something completely unrelated to their job description? Can you imagine some of the innovations that might come from this sustained period of thinking each and every week?

4. See fall back as a gift. As we roll the clocks back this fall, I encourage everyone to view this extra hour as the gift of thought. Sure, extra sleep is nice, but imagine the strides you can make in work and life if you started to take thinking seriously.

While the history of daylight saving time is a bit muddy, Benjamin Franklin is often credited with the innovation. Scholars claim this credit is misplaced, but it doesn’t change the fact that Franklin — creator of daylight saving or not — was one of the greatest innovators of all time. And through the preservation of his meticulous diaries, we now know Franklin kept a rigid schedule that, not surprisingly, left him with several hours a day devoted to mindful thinking. A century before the telephone and two centuries before the personal computer, Ben Franklin recognized the need to set aside time to think. Imagine how much more time he’d set aside today with an iPhone in his pocket!

Very rarely does innovation come from responding to emails and hopping from meeting to meeting. Rather, innovation comes from situations where we unlock our brains’ true potential, let our minds wander, and unleash the subconscious wave that holds the answers to all our questions.

As the old saying goes, “There’s no time like the present.” But I’d argue this daylight saving time that we reorder it slightly: There’s no present like time.

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