We all know this feeling when we just need some space to think. Of course, it goes far beyond just the physical realm, it often means the right time, conditions and inspiration as well. Most often than not it means creating an environment where we can be alone and surrounded with less, so that our thoughts can run their course. Don’t we all need some space to think? This became so clear to me a few days ago when a close friend shared that her three-year-old boy announced he was going outside to walk by the window as he needed his thinking space.
Yes, we all do need our spaces to think, and current various lockdowns, quarantine and work-from-home restrictions don’t make it any easier to create these thinking bubbles. It feels like there’s so much more to think about, so many more worries or problems or choices, and so much less space to do it in. But since thinking is a habit, we need to maintain (or, if you haven’t yet: create) a structure, a set of fixed, repeatable elements around thinking to help us develop it and make the most of it. Identifying and carving out spaces to think is essential, since this is the foundation of practising good thinking on a regular basis. For many of you, your usual thinking spaces might have been disrupted by changes to your daily lives and routines, so I wanted to share a few of my own thinking spaces that I cultivate during the lockdown. I hope they’ll inspire you to build your own good thinking spaces!
1. Early morning ritual
I’m an early riser, and by this I mean I get up early enough to say bon appétit to my US West Coast friends heading out for dinners and catch the sunrise even in the height of summer. I’m wired this way, with the obvious downsides of falling asleep before the evening news. You don’t need to go quite this far. Try waking up earlier than any of your obligations and demands require you to, and put in place little triggers to get you in the thinking mood. For me, by far my best thinking space is my living room in these early hours of the day, when I’m alone, often still in the dark, with my favourite cup of tea and a candle, and my journal. I do my best thinking then, often browsing through my to-think list first and then embarking on my thinking practice. It doesn’t matter what I think about, I just think and this is a regular fixture in my day-to-day, including weekends. Benefits? I start the day with a clear mind and a strong vision, and I know that I’ve just worked on making my thinking habit even stronger.
Any train or plane Noise cancelling headphones
Being a huge fan of trains, I’d never give up an opportunity to get onto one and just disconnect, settling myself into a comfy seat and staring out of the window for the entire trip. I’m not the first one to advocate for the benefits of even tracks, constant speeds and low-level hum when it comes to encouraging thinking and even entering meditative states, of course. This particular combination of factors works really well for me, and also does the job when I’m on a plane. But… lockdown means I can only fantasise about getting on a train or a plane. What I did find out though was that a good pair of noise cancelling headphones creates a somewhat similar environment of distant, reduced noise and slight pressure as if I was on a move at a constant speed. So, whenever I need to carve out some thinking space ad hoc during the day, I pop on my headphones and sit still.
3. Waiting time and transition places
We tend to build in much bigger buffers or envelopes around our appointments these days. I have to go and meet the outside world once a week these days, which means needing to be somewhere on time. I usually leave much earlier to account for all kinds of unpredictable situations, which often leaves me with quite a bit of waiting time and transitioning from one place to another. I may need to wait ten minutes longer on a platform for my train, I may need to walk a little longer because busses are cancelled, I may need to consciously slow down because there’s no need to hurry. In the past, I’d consider this wasted time, and I’d be borderline upset by the sheer utilitarianism of train stations and airports. Now, I use these as opportunities to create some thinking space for myself. I allow myself not to multitask, not to think about where I need to be and what I need to do next, but instead I focus on a specific topic I wanted to think about. I even started making notes of what to think about on my commute or when I walk from one place to another. A much better use of the otherwise dead time, and I can work through my to-think list much faster.
Now, I don’t know whether this works for others, or is it just some sort of a quirk peculiar to how my mind works. I’d really like to hear your experience. So, what happens to me when I encounter a really tough problem to solve, usually in my professional life, and I get stuck, I really can’t think my way out of it and nothing helps, I just take a nap. I lie down firmly focused on the problem I need to solve, and I set the timer for 20 minutes. Most of this time passes by when I’m in a state of near sleep, so I’m somewhat conscious of my thought process, and then for some minutes I’m sure I’m asleep. When I wake up, I know what to do next. I don’t always snap out of sleep with a ready-made solution, but at least I return to my desk knowing exactly what step to take next to bring me closer to resolving the problem. This is a great impromptu thinking space for me. Does your mind work in a similar way?
5. Going on a run
By now you know I’m a passionate runner. I can go on and on about the health benefits of running, but I can probably talk even longer about the usefulness of running as a thinking space. I’m with Haruki Murakami on this one.
“I’m often asked what I think about as I run. Usually the people who ask this have never run long distances themselves. I always ponder the question. What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue.” Haruki Murakami
And, just like him, when I run, I just think, but I have no idea about what. Usually about everything all at once, sometimes about nothing at all. Sometimes I’m able to run and listen to a podcast or an audiobook, but then I have to think about what I hear. So I prefer to run with music randomly served to me from a catchy playlist, and just let my mind roam free. Running is for me the most free, unbounded and unrestricted thinking space. I always come back from a run with a feeling of having thought all the thoughts that I never have time to explore.
6. And the sixth?
I want to hear from you! What’s your best thinking space? Share your places, times, rituals and activities in the comments below. If you don’t have a thinking space yet, which ones of those mentioned above are you going to try out this week?