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Page last updated at 11:06 GMT, Tuesday, 29 July 2008 12:06 UK

No time to think?


By Alan Connor
BBC News Magazine

When Barack Obama met David Cameron, the pair got around to discussing thinking time - and the lack of it. It's not just potential leaders of nations who are short of opportunities to reflect on the bigger picture. How can any of us grab thinking time during the working day?

"These guys just chalk your diary up," lamented Cameron. "We call it the dentist's waiting room."

"The most important thing you need to do," mused Obama, "is to have big chunks of time during the day when all you're doing is thinking."

Apparently unaware of the large fluffy boom mic accompanying their outdoor stroll, David Cameron and Barack Obama swapped fears of getting bogged down in the detail.

If either politician realised he was being recorded, he couldn't have chosen his words better, Obama coming across like the chess-loving contemplative President Bartlet in The West Wing and Cameron balancing work and life more delicately than the workaholic stereotype associated with Gordon Brown.

The political class, being "on" 24/7, may feel in special need of moments to step back from the everyday. But few of us complain of having too much time, whether at work or at home. As a public service, the Magazine asks how to grab yourself some thinking time - from those who've had time to think about it.

No more lunching "al desko"

The most common advice boils down to something that might seem obvious: only work when you're being paid to work. The rest of the day is yours to do with as you wish - and you may wish to devote it to thought.

Obvious, perhaps, but not obvious enough that we do it: various surveys conducted on behalf of food outlets suggest that between 50 and 80% of us skip an actual break for lunch, let alone using the hour for quiet contemplation.

You might not have heard the unspeakable expression "eating al desko", but if you've been in an office, you've probably witnessed the sorry spectacle of a workstation becoming a dining table for seven minutes and a hastily-chomped panino.

"We have to make sure that people in offices go out at lunchtimes," says David Hunter, chief executive of Lifelong Learning UK. "If you leave your desk to wander up the street, you come back refreshed and more able to work."

Chomp chomp

Tom Hodgkinson, editor of The Idler magazine, speaking from a medieval garden, recommends getting away from your workplace and finding nearby places that will afford you some calm.

"People don't take an hour off for lunch any more. But you can eat in a quarter of an hour and then walk somewhere. Churches are great for this."

He also suggests reclaiming your travel time as an opportunity to take stock rather than worrying about the work that you're either approaching or leaving. "It's good to get off the bus earlier and walk - in London, you can give yourself an hour of pure pleasure."

It doesn't have to be atop a mountain

For the truly dedicated, a dedicated space awaits thinking time. Visuddhimati, a teacher at North London Buddhist centre, says that many non-Buddhists want to study how to be aware and set aside "a little space at home" for meditation: "it could be a corner of the room or a dedicated meditation room."

But what if you're space-poor as well as time-poor?

Tony Buzan, the inventor of graphical "thinking tools" MindMaps, says: "I've asked people where they are physically when they have great ideas, paradigm-shifting epiphanies, or a flood of memories they've been trying to remember.

shaving brush
Take your time at the basin

"Regardless of continent, age, gender, education and race, the answers are the same."

The list that follows is reassuring for those who crave some repose without the need for an ashram. The "oases of thought" Buzan hears about are commonly: the shower; the bath; the loo; shaving; walking in nature; in bed (before sleep, in the middle of the night, or first thing); looking at water; listening to classical music and long-distance travel, such as running or driving.

Happily, these are situations you might find yourself in during your everyday life - and thought may come as long as you're not multi-tasking while you do them. Also, as Hodgkinson points out, adding gardening to the list, "they don't cost anything."

Aristotle or Moyles?

In Proust's In Search Of Lost Time, the narrator is prompted to unlock the secrets of memory after some quiet time contemplating a biscuit.

For Proust, a madeleine - you may prefer choccy

Serendipity is nice when it happens, but you may not wish to risk your precious thinking time hoping for random inspiration.

Tony Buzan recommends that once the time and place are right, you "immediately listen to music you associate with relaxation," preferring piano and baroque. Your musical mileage may vary, even to the CDs of The Smiths, Radiohead, Gorillaz and Lily Allen which Mr Cameron gave to Mr Obama during their chat.

Dr Nigel Warburton of the Open University agrees, again citing the commute as a golden opportunity. "Headphones help people remarkably. You can shut out the distractions on public transport in a way that was impossible a generation ago.

"Podcasting allows people to make far more effective use of their travel - what might have been dead time becomes valuable reflective time."

Practicing what he preaches, Dr Warburton started a series of philosophy podcasts last year and saw them beating Chris Moyles in the iTunes chart - and other contemplative 'casts are, of course, available.

For those who prefer output to input, David Hunter recommends writing down what's on your mind.

"You can gain possession of a problem by writing about it, and looking back over past issues to see how you've dealt with them. That way, you progress your learning as you go along."

Not necessarily the best way to think

And, of course, the prop that prompts your thought doesn't have to be inanimate.

"It's not a given that thought is a solitary rather than a social activity," says Dr Warburton.

"People you disagree with are what gets you going, rather than idly going through an unchallenged stream of consciousness. I think more clearly when I'm challenged."

Your mobile has an "off" switch

You may have let a Japanese doctor "train your brain" in a computer game and then filled your brain with the world's knowledge courtesy of Wikipedia - but proper thinking may require you to put these to one side.

"There's a tendency in large organisations to keep us busy," says Hodgkinson, "and when we're not busy, to distract us with a never-ending stream of media like e-mail, Facebook and TV."

why don't you
...and go out and do something less boring instead?

Sometimes, even your favourite prompts for thought may get in the way.

"I can say that all great creators, without exception, have taken breaks," says Buzan. "A minimum of two a day." "Leonardo Da Vinci had a bed in his studio and when patrons accused him of wasting time, he said 'If I don't do this, you don't get the work.'"

If your boss might raise an eyebrow or more at the sight of you installing a futon in your cubicle, you can still capture a little of the Leonardo spirit by dedicating time to avoiding the incoming memos, texts and Post-It notes - and the same goes for the homestead, says Hodgkinson.

"You have to disconnect from what stops you thinking - just stop the flow for a bit, not to a hermetic extent. You could unplug the TV or not get a daily paper for a few days."

You can get it if you really want

"The first step," says Hodgkinson, "is to have an understanding of the importance of thought. Thinking is what makes us human."

These "oases of thought" are not, of course, as scarce for everyone. If your work and life are in perfect balance, if you think that everyone else should work smarter, not harder, or if you can't understand why the rest of the world seems to think it's so busy all the time, you may be one of the lucky ones.

Dr Warburton talks about Open University students who use any means necessary to find the time for thought, getting up two hours before the children or forcing themselves not to nod off at the end of the day.

"Someone who's desperate to do something will find the time," he says. "Everyone can have an hour's less sleep. It's staying alert that's the difficulty."

munch scream again
Someone who forgot their oases of calm

However, says Hunter, the less tenacious can still reap the benefits. "Everyone needs to make time to think," he says, "not just potential leaders of nations."

Tony Buzan expresses the same idea in the form of an ultimatum.

"If you don't give the brain breaks, it will take them", he says, "in the form of loss of concentration, or what we call a mental breakdown."

Think about that.

Send us your comments using the form below.

I am lucky enough to work within 12 minutes' walking distance of both my allotment and a pick-your-own fruit farm, so in summer at least I try to get away to one or the other in my lunch break, even though it means I only spend half an hour there.
Elrohana, Leeds

"Work only when you're paid to work" is great, except that my boss doesn't believe in it. I've been accused of not having enough commitment to work when I've left on time!
N. Roy, Yorkshire

Richard Koch puts it well when he says we must learn to disassociate effort from reward. One of the great problems in so many organisations is a culture that rewards constant activity along well worn processes instead of focusing on identifying breakthrough insights where effort can be targeted much more selectively.
Stephen Chinn, UK

I read this story at my desk eating a sandwich.
Ted Charles, London

I work as a software developer, and quite often I struggle all day to solve a complex coding problem and end up giving up at the end of the day and going home, only to realise the solution whilst walking home when I'm "switched off".
Andrew, Bexley, Kent

In my days of working for large any busy companies, some of my best thoughts and solutions arrived in the gym. Now I've gone self employed and have good ideas in the garden too.
Colin McCormick, Plymouth

One of my ways of grabbing a bit of relaxation is to carry a small sketch book round with me. I can use odd moments to jot down whatever attracts me in my environment, which gives me a break from the cares of the day and connects me to the real world. You don't have to be a Leonardo - it's just for you. Even if you are not inspired, looking back through your book will bring back memories.
Richard Towers, Sheffield

My favourite lunch break is my car catnap - half an hour snooze courtesy of Radio 4's You And Yours, which never fails to send me drifting off! Hooray for naps!
Ros Swetman, Norwich

How much traffic would this website lose if we all stopped having lunch at our desks I wonder??
Paula, Stowmarket, Suffolk

I've filed patents on several ideas which first came to me in the toilet cubicle.
Andrew, UK

My greatest moments of clarity come whilst fishing on the local rivers and lakes, with my two sons.
Ian, Beverley

I get my own back on the diary fillers by inserting my own appointments. Some of these enable me to have thinking time.
Paul Gascoine, Watford

Great food for thought. Now I am going to unlock my desk shackles and go for a walk on a local Wildlife Trust nature reserve - a great breathing space - before heading home, nicely refreshed!
Jono Leadley, Cambridge

I was formally reprimanded for making plans for 20:30 on a Friday night because of my clear lack of commitment after spending a 60 hour week at the office.
Charlie, London

At least now, I know I am not crazy asking for time to think. Putting myself a blank piece of paper before I start to do something- looking for five minutes ouf of the window and persisting to take a walk even in the crowded streets of Athens. As you said, thinking is what will keep us walking..
Tatiana Psaraki, Athens, Greece

Amen! It's high time people reclaimed their lives. If you don't make a stand, bosses and other time parasites will steal every breathing moment you have.
Jason Morris, Bristol

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