Thinking Is Work
I’ve spoken with a lot of folks recently about a challenge imposed on us by increased remote work: losing time to think. Because of an increased need to communicate and align with peers and teammates—and few, ineffective tools for doing so (video-conferencing meetings and documents)—we find ourselves spending more time communicating than executing and, more critically, thinking about work.
I can’t speak for everyone, but for Product Designers, my experience with flow of work is that it requires three distinct phases:
My best work happens when I can dedicate 50%, 30%, and 20% of my time to these phases respectively; but this has become almost impossible.
Remote work has necessitated a sharp increase in the time we spend communicating, since we have fewer opportunities to do this serendipitously (bumping into colleagues in between meetings or at our desks). Of course, the tactical work still has to happen, and many of us feel an acute sense of guilt when we’re not at our computers executing: doing the things we say need doing in our communications.
I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling the costs of these changes: my days are dominated by meetings to communicate, peppered with small blocks to execute, and the only time I have left to think is after my workday ends. By the time I’m sitting down for dinner with my family, my brain is still at work.
Having lost the serendipitous opportunities for collaboration that come with shared office space, we have to more intentionally create these spaces and change the way that we think about meeting purpose and structure. Something I’ve observed in my own team is that when we can co-locate phases of work—thinking, execution, and communication happening all at once—it dramatically improves our efficiency and morale.
Practically speaking, this has meant having a 45-minute meeting once a week where our design team meets with key partner designers and works cooperatively in a Figma file on a shared problem. This has several benefits:
- Communication cycles are cut down or removed altogether, since key stakeholders are participating in real-time in the development of solutions
- Execution is distributed amongst participants, lowering execution tax on individuals and generating more output
- Thinking is aided by inviting more diverse thought from a wider group, often resulting in more creative solutions than individuals can produce alone
Finding more opportunities to colocate these phases of work is a powerful way to free up time for individual focus.
If we’re able to reclaim time by colocating phases of thinking, executing, and communicating with others, how do we capitalise on that time? Work expands to fill the time allotted to it, so we have to act quickly and with intention to plan for solitary thinking.
I have no silver bullets for this kind of work, since everyone’s circumstances are different: many of us may still be feeling like we’re figuring out how to work from home, overlapping with other household members or coping with new, limited social contact. But in all cases, I strongly recommend time away from screens to think.
Even performing menial errands like putting on a load of laundry, or extending your lunch time to take a 30-minute walk can grant the away-from-screen time we need to limit distractions and process information. The important thing is to remember that thinking is work. Try to let go of the guilt associated with not being tethered to a screen and recognise that in many modern workplaces, knowledge is the primary capital, and processing that knowledge can only be done by one tool: your brain. Give your brain the time it needs to do the thing that Mother Nature spent billions of years designing it for: thinking.
Time Is Finite
Research has shown that consistently getting less that 8 hours of nightly sleep can have detrimental effects on our health, emotional state, and capacity to work and learn. After 10 consecutive days of just 7 hours of sleep a night, we suffer a similar loss of brain function as individuals who stay awake for 24 hours straight1. Even taking a short nap in the afternoon can help the brain relocate newly learned information from the hippocampus, where short-term memories are banked, to the cortex, where facts are more permanently stored for later retrieval, increasing our capacity for new information later in the day2.
It is entirely reasonable to set a schedule so that in 24 hours, 8 hours are spent sleeping, 8 hours are spent working, and 8 hours are spent living. Any work that can’t be achieved in 8 hours can—must—wait until the next day.
When asking others to commit to work, it’s important to bear this in mind too. Many of us are already at our limits, filling our 8 hours (often more than) with specific tasks. We can’t afford to append items: there must be a tradeoff. Be straightforward in setting expectations both when setting and delivering work: get comfortable setting commitments like “I can spend two hours on this” and sticking to those commitments by scheduling time specifically for them.
Thinking is work. It’s about time we remember it more often.