Scheduling time at work to ‘think’ is a brainless idea

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How much of their time should managers spend thinking? Tim Armstrong believes the correct answer is 10 per cent — and has instructed all his underlings at AOL to spend one-tenth of each working week deploying their grey matter.

Last week I emailed the company to see if I could find out more about this peculiar policy. A curt reply came back stating that 10 per cent Think Time was something “Tim believes in and urges us to do”, although it was not compulsory.

In the absence of any further facts, I have been wondering if Mr Armstrong’s initiative is one of the smartest or one of the most brainless to have emerged from corporate America in 2014.

Edward Hallowell, an ADD expert (whose book Driven to Distraction at Work I reviewed last week), sees it as a stroke of genius. He thinks we are all so frazzled and distracted that we have stopped thinking altogether. If managers could only be encouraged to clear their mental decks for a few hours a week and engage in a little clear thought, that would be a jolly good thing.

Yet to me, the policy seems more like a jolly bad one. If it is deemed highly desirable to spend 10 per cent of the time thinking, that amounts to admitting it is perfectly acceptable to spend 90 per cent of the day not thinking. And that doesn’t sound right at all.

I’m a fan of thinking. Indeed I’m such a big fan that I see no reason why everyone shouldn’t spend 100 per cent of the working day with their brains more or less in the “on” position. Or, if that is a little ambitious, then at least 90 per cent, with the balance being made up by such activities as filling in forms sent by HR, which require no active engagement by the mind at all.

I am not saying that for 90 per cent of the time in the office we should all be straining to have great thoughts, as most of us don’t have the wherewithal for that, and there are only so many great thoughts that any company can bear. All I’m saying is that we should aim to pass our days at work relatively alert, ready for whatever comes our way.

If everyone signed up to my ambitious 90 per cent thinking goal, office life would become better — and far more productive — overnight. All sorts of useless activities that require no thought would have to be eliminated. For a start, almost all meetings would need to go. The reason that perfectly intelligent people feel the need to play illicit games of Candy Crush during them is only partly because such games are addictive. The more worrying reason is that meetings are insufficiently interesting. Far from encouraging us to think, they forbid us from doing so.

Yet even though I’ve just suggested a 90 per cent Think Time policy, I’m not entirely in favour of it — because I can’t see any sense in targets for thinking at all. To mark off dedicated times for thought is simply not how my brain functions — and not how any office I’ve ever been in works either.

If I sat down to think for an hour a day I have no doubt that within seconds my mind would have strayed to wondering what I did with the receipts for the Christmas presents I’ve just bought in a last minute panic and which I realise are so hopeless they will almost certainly end up being taken back.

Instead, the thoughts that really matter come to me when I am doing something else, like talking to someone, riding my bike, or even — sometimes — reading emails. The only time they never come is when I’m sitting there twiddling my thumbs waiting for them.

The final problem with Think Time policies is they assume that the fruits of dedicated thinking are going to be positive. In the corporate world, most of the “thoughts” that people come up with are no good whatsoever. Proof of this plops into my inbox at work at least every hour. The most recent piece of evidence bore the subject line “Make your Christmas Special . . .” — an acceptable and inoffensive start — until it went on “ . . . with 30% off on PMP Course”.

Most people’s idea of making Christmas special includes such things as ice skating on frozen lakes and cold magnums of champagne. It does not include being given a 30 per cent discount on a management course that leads to a certification in project management.

So what is the answer to such boneheadedness? The Armstrong solution might be to give the person responsible for such an idiotic idea a little more dedicated time to ponder. Maybe that would have helped, although I can’t help thinking a better answer would be to take the job of dreaming up new special offers away from him or her and give it to someone with a greater aptitude for thinking instead.

lucy.kellaway@ft.com
Twitter: @lucykellaway


Letter in response to this article:

Best ‘think’ work comes from mental freedom / From Nick Hortin

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