Successful People Like Elon Musk and Warren Buffett Practice Thinking Time Rule

practice thinking time rule

“Five percent of the people think; 
ten percent of the people think they think; 
and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.” 
― Thomas A. Edison

I remember when I was a child hearing my mother mutter loudly “I can’t even hear myself think.” I thought that was very funny and didn’t make any sense. Even a child knew that what was in her mother’s head wasn’t going to magically fly out so she could hear it.

Of course, being unable to hear yourself think isn’t a literal hearing problem. We all experience that feeling of sensory overload. The neverending stream of sound, information and the presence of others gives us little room for peaceful, reflective thinking.

Academic research has been done to evaluate the importance of teaching thinking as a business skill. I will leave the serious analysis for more scholarly minds to explore. My interest is in the practical value of everyday thinking for our personal and professional well-being.

This is what I call the Thinking Time Rule.

As an avid reader and student of successful peoples’ habits, I have found a common thread among them. In spite of their incredible daily demands, they make time to think. Not just random thoughts that come and go ---seriously focused thinking time.

Successful people understand that reading, learning, thinking and actively sharing thoughts are essential. Without time to process and sharpen their thinking many of their most significant achievements might not have happened.

Are you wondering why you would invest the scarce time you have left in your typical day to just sit and think?

I know I did. I had fallen into the pit of productivity. In spite of being a committed note-writer and list maker, I treated these as sidebars to the more important tasks at hand. The continual reminders that far more successful people were carving out thinking time finally made me pause.

During Bill Gates’ active Microsoft years he went away for two weeks each year to read and think. If he could give himself that gift of solitary time, then maybe there was something to this thinking time idea.

Adopting your personal Thinking Time Rule is absolutely doable. You can start right now with these five mind shifts.

1. Permission

“Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason so few engage in it.”
--- Henry Ford

Thinking time might require you to rethink your attitude toward a little mental wandering. In a world that places high stakes on productivity and measurable output, thinking doesn’t even begin to check those boxes. Nothing to measure there.

Elon Musk said he would simply stare out the window for hours when he was a child. It was then that he saw his vision for space travel.

From the time we were young, we were encouraged to “do something”… to “pay attention.” Staring out the window was the mark of a shiftless daydreamer.

Guess what? Without the ability to mentally roam and imagine freely, those very things we obsessively measure would probably not exist as they currently are.  Many of the greatest inventions and creations are the result of thinkers unafraid to ask “what if” and “why not”.

Even the very act of data gathering requires that we schedule time to think. What does the data mean? What are the unexplored possibilities waiting to be uncovered? What now?

Measuring without thinking is a job half done.

2. Purpose

“I insist on a lot of time being spent, almost every day, to just sit and think. That is very uncommon in American business. I read and think. So I do more reading and thinking, and make less impulse decisions than most people in business. I do it because I like this kind of life.”
--- Warren Buffett

Learning and thinking opens your ever-expanding mind to new possibilities and ideas. The Thinking Time Rule gives you permission to read and learn.

Finding time for this is easier than you might think.

Instead of mindlessly scrolling through your Facebook or Instagram feed, finish one chapter in the book you’ve been intending to read. Fill that commute time with a worthwhile podcast or audio book. Take a walk and listen to a book ---a double win.
The important thing to remember is all reading and learning is not equal. The content must be truthful, factual, and inspire further thought.

The time to learn is available; you just have to rethink how you value your own time.

In How to Think by Alan Jacobs, Jacobs tells the story of Jason Fried, the creator of the project management software Basecamp.  Fried was attending a conference talk and didn’t like the talk. He didn’t agree with the speaker’s point of view and become more irritated as the talk continued. When it was over, he rushed up to the speaker to express his disagreement.

The speaker patiently listened and then said “Give it five minutes” Fried was taken aback, and then he had his aha moment. After just the first few minutes of the speaker’s lecture, Fried had effectively stopped listening. He had heard something he didn’t agree with and immediately entered Refutation Mode. In Refutation Mode there is no listening.

When there is no listening there is no thinking. To enter Refutation Mode is to say that you’ve done all the thinking you need to do. No further information is required or received. Fried was so inspired by the speaker’s simple request that he adopted“ give it five minutes ” as a kind of personal thinking guidepost.

3. Place

“All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.”
--- Frederich Neitzsche

Thinking happens in your head. It receives the energy it needs from the surroundings that are uniquely yours.

Theodor Geisel, known to most of us as Dr. Seuss, spent his workdays in a secluded bell tower outside his La Jolla, CA house. The walls covered with drawing and pictures created the inspiration he needed to feed his imagination.

Thinking doesn’t need to happen in isolation. Often mental and physical wandering connects the dots in surprising new ways.

Steve Jobs famously roamed the small kitchen appliance aisles of Macy’s one day. It was there that his iconic Mac design was inspired.

Howard Schultz roamed Italy visiting coffee bars.

There is no right or wrong place to think.  You might start by going to the place where you always slow down and breathe.  It might be your favorite corner coffee shop, bookstore or peaceful park. The choice is yours.


4. People

“When I get ready to talk to people, I spend two thirds of the time thinking what they want to hear and one third thinking about what I want to say.”
--- Abraham Lincoln

Sharing your ideas with other curious thinkers broadens your mind. You will see new connections in surprising ways. As refreshing as reflective thinking is, too much time in your own head can narrow your perspective and limit your thinking.

I’ve learned when I have had enough in-my-head time and need the company of others.

As Stephen King said, “The thought process can never be complete without articulation.”

Intuit founder Scott Cook watched his wife’s ongoing frustration with managing their finances. When he had a sneak peak at the Apple Lisa before its launch, he immediately connected the user interface of the Lisa with his wife’s recordkeeping. Thoughtfully connecting these unrelated dots led to the creation of Intuit and an immediate 50% market share success.

Warren Buffett and his longtime friend and business partner Charlie Munger both are avid readers, learners and thinkers. But reading alone won’t take you far enough. It’s being able to process, think, and share what you learn that makes all the difference.

Charlie Munger once said “Neither Warren nor I is smart enough to make the decisions with no time to think. We make actual decisions very rapidly, but that's because we've spent so much time preparing ourselves by quietly sitting and reading and thinking."

5. Practice

“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
― Steve Jobs

The kind of inspired thinking that contributes not only to your personal happiness but also to your professional communities can be developed.  

The Thinking Time Rule gives you the permission to craft your personal thinking ritual. When and where are not nearly as important as your commitment to make it part of every day. Begin by finding those lost minutes in your day.  What do you want to accomplish when you can hear yourself think?

Jeff Weiner schedules two hours of thinking time daily. You might not have the luxury of two hours, but you do have 30 minutes somewhere.

Warren Buffett told this story in an interview for his biography The Snowball:

“Charlie, as a very young lawyer, was probably getting $20 an hour. He thought to himself, 'Who's my most valuable client?' And he decided it was himself. So he decided to sell himself an hour each day. He did it early in the morning, working on these construction projects and real estate deals. Everybody should do this, be the client, and then work for other people, too, and sell yourself an hour a day.”


The Takeaway: Adopt the Thinking Time Rule

The next time you can’t hear yourself think or simply feel the urge to wander, just do it. Give yourself permission to welcome the thoughts rolling around in your head.

Thinking time is a habit practiced regularly by successful, fulfilled people.

Tags: Learning

Linda Rolf is a lifelong curious learner who believes a knowledge-first approach builds valuable client relationships. She is fueled by discovering the unexpected connections among technology, data, information, people and process. For more than four decades, Linda and Quest Technology Group have been their clients' trusted advisor and strategic partner.

Linda believes that lasting value and trust are created through continuously listening, sharing knowledge freely, and delivering more than their clients even know they need. As the CIO of their first startup client said, "The value that Quest brings to Cotton States is far greater than the software they develop."

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