No Time to Think


The conversation I shared yesterday, with a young social change agent trying to find his path, brought up for me an issue that is glaringly absent in almost all discussions of “best practice” in the social change arena.

Put simply, we devalue thinking, exploring, experimenting. What we value is “doing.”
When individuals take time for exploring interests – learning for the sake of learning – we consider it a luxury, a recreational activity.  And the staffs and boards of organizations? Truly, time for thinking and exploring has absolutely no place in organizations, period.
In a workshop I taught in New Zealand this past spring, a gentleman stood with a question.  His organization is fighting an initiative by the national government that threatens local control in a way that is somewhat unfathomable in a democratic country.  They are fighting the good fight 24/7, with not a moment’s rest. Here is his question.
“What you are suggesting – focusing on our purpose, our vision for the community, our core values, and then creating our plans based on that – that would indeed bring us forward.  But the reality is we have no time to think.  We do not have time to close the doors and talk over these sorts of issues in a thoughtful way.  And while we are confident that taking that time will absolutely bring us farther forward than we will be if we don’t do so, we simply do not have the time.”
We all know the feeling.
In the consultant immersion courses we teach, much of the emphasis is on pre-planning everything a consultant does. “When you sit in the morning to line out your day, consider the following…” I tell the students.
In one class, one of the more seasoned consultants said what many of the others were thinking.  “Where do you find the time to do all this thinking?”
This “no time to think” and certainly the pressure to “do” vs. “explore” is most evident in board rooms of Community Benefit Organizations.  I wish I had a dollar for every board chair who told me, “We would like to talk about the impact we want to have in the community, but we don’t have time for that.  We have important and urgent matters that must take precedent.”
And what is it they feel is so much more important than exploring the impact they have in the community? We all know the answer: reviewing the financials and other internal matters.
So I guess my advice to boards and EDs and social entrepreneurs and funders who want to create more impact is the same as the advice I shared yesterday, in my conversation with Abbas.
Take time to think. Take time to explore and experiment. Take time to reflect on what is powerful in the discussion, to learn and grow and add that new learning into the next conversation.  Take time to discuss with no preconceived notion of the end result.
Take time to try new things – new programs that we are not sure will work but are better than not experimenting at all.
Take time to ask questions with no answers. Take more time to ask more questions, digging deeper until the answers find you.
At every board meeting. At every staff meeting. For a portion of every day.
Our power to change the world will not come from responding to day-to-day circumstances. That power will not come from reviewing the financials and the HR policies. The power to create change will not come from frantic doing doing doing. And it will not come from shying away from experimenting with approaches that are big and bold and unproven.
Our power to change the world will come from thoughtful conversation, experimentation and exploration – all aimed at the positive, powerful, amazing results we want to see in our communities.
So are you ready to take a moment, close the door, breathe deep, and just think?

4 Responses to No Time to Think

  1. What an utterly convicting post, Hildy. Whew. I need to re-read and absorb a bit, but just stopping by for a quick “Amen!”

    I’ve been there – as has, undoubtedly, every reader of this blog. I’ve been there as one of those board members feeling the press to show results with few resources, and as a facilitator/teacher/consultant working with groups struggling with this very issue. I continue to press boards and their leaders to make and value that space. The reception continues to be a challenging one.

    One of your tweets this morning primed my brain for reading this post this afternoon. You wrote, “What if the reason social change happens slowly is because we assume social change will happen slowly?” I think of my own social change work, in areas like domestic violence, where the given was “probably not in our lifetimes…” Well, why not? How did that impact how we approached our governance work and our responsibilities in setting the direction of the agencies’ mission focus? How would things have been different – for our community – if we had not automatically taken that long view approach?

    As always, you’ve shaken my brain a bit. I’ll look forward to the discussion that this post is bound to spark. And I’ll read (and share) this jewel many times.

  2. Richard Nixon is reported to have said, in words to this effect, that the most under-appreciated thing a leader can do is to take time to think. Given where Nixon ended up, perhaps something should be said not only about the value to thinking but also something about what is that we think, how we think it, how we validate it, and then what we do with our thinking products. Thinking is not knowledge or wisdom, but it is a required process that will lead us to knowledge and/or wisdom.

    It is also said that the results of our thinking, knowledge, is power. I submit that this statement is wrong. Power comes from what we DO with knowledge (think Ghandi or Schweitzer here, rather than Nixon.) So, another thing to think about is what we will do with the results of our thought. There is a relationship between the results of thought (often termed “theory”) and what we do with those results (often termed “practice.”) Ultimately, if one thinks without an understanding of what and how to apply the results, or simply to act or do without an understanding of what and how to think, then chaos will be the likely result.

    Descartes said, “Dubito, cognito, ergo sum.” (Usually “Dubito,” “I doubt,” is omitted in front of “I think, therefore, I am.”) From which we can presume that “being” is a form of “doing.” My point is that, first, thinking in a vacuum is impossible: not mutually exclusive from ‘doing” something and, second, doing or acting in a vacuum is impossible: not mutually exclusive from “thinking” something.

    In the presentation above we are presented with an anecdote followed by the statement, “Here is his question:” But … no question is posed. It’s a statement that is, basically, “We don’t have time to think.” The statement is false … if we’re doing, we’re thinking. We might not be thinking well, or completely, or with errors, but with our action, whatever it is, we are thinking. So, what’s the question?
    “1) How do we give our space in the demands of life to sit and think?”
    “2) How do we use thought to make our actions more efficient, giving us more time?” or vice versa, “How do we use our actions to make our thoughts less chaotic, giving us more time?” Or, both.
    “3) If we have time for thinking, do we know what “quality thought” is?” Does it matter?
    “4) Is thinking for thinking’s sake valuable?”
    There are many more along these lines … the answers to which would result in interesting discussions ..

    Onward and upward. I’m off for a cup of something. Maybe I’ll sit and think as I sit.

  3. I shouldn’t be surprised that a post about taking time to think has generated such thought-filled responses as Jon’s and Debra’s. Thank you both!

    The Buddha said, “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we create the world.”

    So, as Jon asks, is there value in thinking for the sake of thinking?

  4. Hildy,
    Great post! You often say “the thing that cannot be said.” Who has time to think? Who has time to sit back and create? But, as @Jon wrote (nice use of Descartes), it’s impossible to be without thinking. It’s impossible to create with out thinking (love your Buddha quote).

    When a client asks me how long it will take to deliver a social media strategy, I add a week to the timeline. Not because I’m buffering the estimated delivery date, but because my process is more along this timeline: I think, I research, I write, I go running and get new ideas, I research some more, I write some more, I talk to the client, I change my ideas, I go running and think some more,I research some more, I put together a first draft…” You get the drift. Creation is not a linear process. So maybe, when we work with boards, clients, ourselves, we have to realize that it’s not about setting aside time for this issue or that…it’s about setting aside time, period.

    How do you set aside time when you work with boards and organizations that need more than just one meeting or one period of time to talk? After all, that generates more conversation and the need for more time to create and review. I think this is a significant challenge: setting aside time for non-linear project development.