When There’s No Time to Think, Fly Up

No time to choose when the truth must die. No time to lose or say goodbye. No time to prepare for the victim that’s there. No time to suffer or blink. And there’s no time to think.” –-Bob Dylan

bob-dylanPerhaps we should all have an ever so slight fear of getting bogged down in details. I can’t help but fall back on my flying experiences or the expression of being “too far down in the weeds. Most modern aircraft have a GPWS (ground proximity warning system/pronounced “gyp-wiz”) to inform pilots when we are too low to the ground or too low and/or not in a proper configuration. In these situations, usually a loud voice will announce, “TOO LOW GEAR, TOO LOW FLAPS” or “TERRAIN, TERRAIN, TERRAIN!”  

So where is my personal GPWS? As we go through day-to-day life, how do we know when to “FLY UP” to get a good glimpse of the strategic picture? On a deeper level, do we even have the time?

We live in a hyper-speed world and it is getting faster—when do we have time to think? How do we know when to think? So many times we find ourselves having to just handle whatever is on our schedule. Many days, we are living life on the tactical level and for some that is fine. For me, I desperately want to get to the operational or, more importantly, the strategic. When we live from the strategic perspective, life actually gets easier. The really tough part is finding the time to get there, reflect on it daily, and execute ideas from that perspective versus the tyranny of the inbox.

The accelerating pace of life is reducing the time for thoughtful reflection and, in particular, for strategic formulation and contemplative scholarship. This loss of time to think is occurring at the exact moment when leaders, scholars, educators and students have gained access to digital tools of great value. We have become a world of reactors, not thinkers, at a time when deep thinking is so desperately needed.

What most determines risk or opportunity is what a leader is thinking. It’s from that thinking that assumptions are formed, judgments and decisions are made, priorities are established, and courses are set.

With the military, business and political worlds getting more complex and difficult, coupled with the demands of people, cell phones, iPads, laptops, or just too much communication, having the quiet and time to sort through things and figure what to do is fast disappearing.

We face volatility and velocity–and most, including myself, have begun to respond to this by trying to move faster, reacting to every vibration of the iPhone. Schedules are filling up with more and more activity, all of it reactionary attempts to respond to the risks generated by all this volatility.

Trapped in a commercial aircraft is when I catch my breath long enough to remind myself that a leader who is constantly reacting is a leader who is no longer thinking, whose priorities are now ordered by random and wildly fluctuating externalities, and thus is a leader who is putting his flight/squadron/group/organization at risk. I’m amazed at leaders who operate at such a fast pace that they resemble rocks skipping over the tops of huge issues, never stopping sufficiently to understand, frame and act in a way that resembles insight, wisdom or good judgment. As they travel at warp speed toward a certain wreck, they do the only thing they now know how to do: they speed up even more.

I write this not as one who has mastered this idea of setting aside intentional time to think, but as one who recognizes I must get better. Here are a few strategies for you to consider:

  1. Begin by analyzing what is exactly happening to your time…FOCUS!
  2. Eliminate all things that I should not be doing. Thinking that we are indispensable is one root cause of this habit. Peter Drucker says–“What managers decide to stop doing is often more important than what they decide to do.”
  3. Create blocks of time in your schedule devoted to thinking.
  4. For the extended periods of time, get away from the office or base and get off the grid. Lose the connectivity for a few hours. (Ouch, that’s a tough one for me).
  5. Leave the urgencies and do-lists behind. Focus on the purpose, future, and health of your organization or unit and its people and the critical priorities that will move the organization forward.
  6. Use a practical system and a simple tool for accountability. I like the 5 Gears manual stick shift metaphor of shifting intentionally into 5th gear, where I can focus solely on what I really need to think about, as in tip number one above, or 1st gear, where I can disconnect and recharge my mind, as in number four above.

GiANT Visual Tools -2015B_09March2015_US copy.029 copy

No time to think… Really? Is this a matter of better time management? Not really. Time is not managed. We can only manage ourselves. If we understand that good thinking is absolutely necessary for personal and organizational well-being, then we need to zealously pursue it and guard it as a priority.

“Mercury rules you and destiny fools you like the plague, with a dangerous wink. And there’s no time to think.” — Bob Dylan

Editor’s note: For more on 5 Gears, visit 5gears.com/book.

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