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Recently I was following (via Twitter) an event led by @Hcvoices. The conversation was about finding ways of getting new voices heard in the health and care debates and was fascinating and inspiring. You can see the hashtag thread at #newhcvoices and there’s a website on its way.

A few participants sidetracked, as you do, into a conversation about ‘thinking time’ and how hard it is to embed it into a busy work life. Lots of people talk to you about ‘being’ a leader, not so many talk about how you need time to be one, especially early on. It’s a conversation I’ve had many times with colleagues, and with individuals I have mentored or coached, and I spent a little time afterwards reflecting on those conversations and on my own actions with regard to ‘thinking time’.

I’m using the term ‘thinking time’ here to cover quite a range of activity – not only formal education – although that should be, of course, supreme thinking time! Things like informal group meetings – spontaneous seminars, discussions, tweet-ups, lunch or coffee/tea dates, coaching sessions, meeting a mentor etc. – anything where you and at least one other meet and talk about work, policy and strategy, your discipline, your future, your hopes and aspirations and not just about TV programmes, families, work horror stories – although those things are important to find time for too. So, here are three thoughts. They won’t all be relevant, or possible, for everyone, but take what you can. And if you are in a middle/senior management and/or leadership position – none of this should be beyond your control. And, of course, you should be role modelling it! 

1. Let yourself go.

The most frequent sort of thing I hear is this: “There aren’t enough hours in the day”, “Something more important always come up”, “I get called away”, “I can’t fit it in, there are too many other things that have to take priority”. Until you see no other more pressing priority for you, you will never have any thinking time. You have to ‘stiffen the sinews’ and put yourself first. You want to be good at your job, don’t you? You want to make a difference and have that difference recognised? Then you HAVE to find thinking time. It’s not selfish, it’s not letting others down, it’s not skiving. It’s what makes you good at your job. Stop thinking that other people will roll their eyes and talk about you – some will, but you will ignore that nonsense because you understand that time to think is crucial to your contribution and you are not about to be guilt tripped out of it. Martyrs aren’t leaders (and besides most of them are dead – metaphorically if not literally). Until you can get to this point in your head – you won’t make the time. It’s no good saying ‘My organisation/manager doesn’t value thinking time’ if you can’t value it yourself.

2. Release yourself.

A leader knows that the people in their team need to look up as well as down. In fact, I would go so far as to say that in many ways, a leader is only as good as the people in the next layer down. So start using them. If you want to plan some time out – even if it’s only an hour, let alone two days – plan who will cover your activities that really need covering whilst your thinking. This isn’t about taking them away from their work, this is about providing opportunities for people to experience your work for themselves and to feel trusted and empowered to act for you. It doesn’t have to be one person. Look at your diary and your and their work and give opportunities to different people, so that it’s not a burden – it may even be a reward. Treat it and talk about it as a development opportunity (which is exactly what it is). Then trust them to do it. Make this an expectation in your team, it will soon be accepted practice and not only will you liberate yourself from time to time, you will also grow the skills and attitudes of your team. You do need to plan thinking time out. But once you’ve planned for it, then hold to it.

3. Share yourself.

When you’ve experienced that thoughtful conversation, or that lunchtime seminar/discussion group, or that two day course, bring it back to your colleagues and your team. Find moments to share what interested you with them, in individual conversations or when you are together as a group. Ask what they think about it. This can be in passing – on the way to a meeting, or out to the car or bus – or more formally. Just chat about what you got out of it, and how it has helped your thinking, and what you might do as a result. If there was a document/slides or handout – share it with them. Or blog about it. Offer to discuss it at a regular meeting. Engage them in the product of your thinking time. That way, it’s not just about you – which it’s not – it’s about how you use your time to serve them and to serve your organisation. 

This isn’t anything extraordinary, it’s just that sometimes we need to be reminded or offered ways of making things happen. Of seeing a bigger picture and putting our actions into a broader context. There’s also the more mundane stuff about managing your diary (at which I am now masterful) and I’ll happily talk to anyone how to get to the point of “zen and the art of diary management”. I hope the above is useful as a starting point.