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Blog // Productivity
June 9, 2020

How To (Almost) Have A Think Week

Bill Gates is known for his ‘think weeks’, where he takes time alone to read and reflect deeply on problems he faces in his work. Recently, I tried the same thing.

I decided to spend a week thinking. Okay, we think all the time, but a week in May was set aside purely for thinking. Here’s why I did it, how I did it, and (spoiler alert) why it didn’t really work.

If you’ve seen the Netflix documentary Inside the Mind of Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates, then you probably noticed him carrying a big bag of books to a small lakeside cabin that looks like it can be reached only by seaplane. This is Gates going on one of his famous think weeks.

It’s easy to see how taking a week away from normal work to focus on big problems could foster fresh and innovative ideas. We know a sprint can be a great way to finish, or at least make a lot of progress on a project. Block out everything else and focus your attention on just one thing for a week, or at least a few days. The lack of distraction and extra time to focus is great for deep work and staying in the flow state.

A think week is like a sprint for the mind.

12 Favourite Questions

If you can make the time and find the space to try this, then the big challenge is what to think about.

Lately, I’ve been working on a set of 12 questions, something inspired by Tiago Forte’s Building A Second Brain course. The concept comes from a quote by physicist Richard Feynman, who suggests that keeping a list of 12 favourite problems helps focus your mind. As you are exposed to new ideas and opinions, these 12 questions act as a filter, making it clear which pieces of information are most helpful to you.

‘You have to keep a dozen of your favourite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lie in a dormant state. Every time you hear a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your 12 problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say, “How did he do it? He must be a genius!”’

– Richard Feynman

Your 12 questions will reflect your deepest passions. They will be the things that get you out of bed in the morning. They will be something you come back to, over and over again.

These questions are different from projects. Your projects usually have shorter completion times and more achievable goals. Making a photo book might be a project, but the question that drives you might be something like how to document human impact on nature.

In a way, your questions will be more like infinite games; your projects, like finite games. (read here for more on finite and infinite games)

The Think Week Plan

My plan for the think week was to pick three questions and read deeply around them. The three problems I chose were:

  1. What are the economics of art during political upheaval?
  2. How do you become a post-digital thought leader?
  3.  Can I write fiction?

To prepare, I ordered in a big stack of books on each topic and squirrelled away an equally substantial collection of journal articles and online pieces. My idea was to have more than enough to explore in any category.

‘No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.’

– Richard Feynman

I also put my normal writing routine on hold for the week. I didn’t want the temptation of trying to quickly turn any new insights into blogposts. I wanted time to think without the pressure of showing an immediate result.

The plan felt good. But the week turned out to be a bit of a failure.

Why It Didn’t Work

Maybe I’m too harsh on myself. By the end of the week, I had read a couple of thousand pages of material I might not otherwise have explored. There were certainly some big, new ideas in there. There were also some unexpected creative insights on unrelated topics – one of which will change the way I use my mailing list, for example.

It wasn’t a waste.

But it was hard to shake the feeling this would’ve been a very different experience were it not for isolation and quarantine. Bill Gates does this alone, and in any normal year I have plenty of weeks where I’m also alone.

The year 2020 is becoming a year with little travel, which also means missing out on all those moments alone, on flights, in airports, or hotels, which are times to read and think without distraction.

Solitude is hard to find in a home with the three of us locked inside for 23 hours a day – even more so when I had to interrupt the reading to cook meals, answer the door for deliveries, and generally be a supportive part of a family during this difficult season.

Maybe most importantly of all, I missed the chance to go on long, carefree walks. My daily walk in the park is lovely. But avoiding people is a distraction. It’s not the same as going on a hike alone in nature. Walking plays a big role in giving the mind time to reflect and make connections.

The Mini-Think Week

Given that some form of travel-less isolation and quarantine will be the reality this summer, I’m going to try another think week next quarter. This one will be smaller. I’m going to keep my normal routine in the mornings and do the think week across the afternoons and evenings. It will be focussed on only one problem. And there will be a greater emphasis on making notes.

This will make it a little less like the Bill Gates model and more like the way I often do work-related sprints on my projects.

Right now, this might be the best option. Maybe this isn’t the season in life for the deep immersion a think week requires. Maybe a think week is something you can really do only when you have extended time alone.

The mini think week, however – blocking out a big chunk of time in an otherwise normal week for a ‘think sprint’ – that feels do-able right now.

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