Whether you’re a startup founder leading a team of 5 or an executive at a global organization leading a team of 500, your day is most likely defined by this one word: busy.
Meetings, calls, messages, notifications, and decisions flood your day from the moment you wake up. It’s exhausting just thinking about it.
But how often are you actually thinking throughout the day? Is your brain on auto-pilot with the sole mission to get through your to-do list? How often are you stopping to reflect in order to know how to move forward?
You may be struggling to answer these questions, and the hard truth is that you may have low levels of self-awareness.
In a 2010 study, conducted by a research team at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations and commissioned by an organizational consulting firm, Green Peak Partners, they discovered that self-aware leaders have higher levels of performance. The researchers explained in their report:
“Our findings directly challenge the conventional view that ‘drive for results at all costs’ is the right approach. The executives most likely to deliver good bottom-line results are actually self-aware leaders who are especially good at working with individuals and in teams.”
In addition to self-awareness, leaders who have high-levels of emotional intelligence are shown to foster high-performing teams and corporate cultures.
Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to identify and manage your own emotions as well as another’s emotions. Emotionally intelligent leaders typically have at least these three skills: the ability to identify one’s emotions; the ability to harness those emotions and apply them to tasks like problem solving; and the ability to manage emotions—which includes both regulating one’s own emotions when necessary and helping others to do the same.
So, how can you put the focus on yourself and develop these necessary skills of self-awareness and emotional intelligence when your work is dedicated to leading and serving others?
It starts with creating some distance between you and those other people—by incorporating more moments of solitude into your schedule.
As Pablo Picasso famously stated: “Without great solitude no serious work is possible.”
Let’s explore the pros of solitude and the 4-step framework you can implement in order to incorporate this strategy into your routine and become a better leader.
The 4-Step Framework For Incorporating More Moments Of Solitude Into Your Schedule
Spending time by yourself is an activity that should be pursued, not avoided. Now before you run off into the forest, you don’t need to become a total recluse.
There are several benefits you will realize when you incorporate more “me-time” into your routine:
- Clarity of your values, passions, and aspirations
- Boosts in your creativity
- Improvements to your intuition
The leaders (and world-renowned artists) we admire are the ones who are intentional with the time they spend in solitude.
For example, Albert Einstein incorporated moments away from his science experiments on a daily basis by taking walks alone or simple laying in his bed. He shared in a journal entry:
“On the other hand, although I have a regular work schedule, I take time to go for long walks on the beach so that I can listen to what is going on inside my head. If my work isn’t going well, I lie down in the middle of a workday and gaze at the ceiling while I listen and visualize what goes on in my imagination.”
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed over 600 works in his lifetime but took time away from his music in order to gain inspiration. He explained:
“When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer–say, traveling in a carriage or walking after a good meal or during the night when I cannot sleep–it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly.”
Bill Gates is known for many inventions, one of which is his “Think Week.” Twice per year, the principal founder and chairman of Microsoft Corporation removes himself from civilization and spends a week alone in his cottage in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. The goal of his retreat is to ponder the future of technology and think of new ideas for his company. He primarily spends the majority of this alone time focused on thinking, reading, and writing. Work done during one Think Week eventually led to Microsoft launching Internet Explorer in 1995.
Now, you may not have the resources or access to have your own “Think Week” but this concept of solitude holds true and is a successful tactic for developing your leadership skills.
Follow this framework to carve out more “me-time” into your day.
1. Remove Distractions
As you move deeper into a digital world and into higher levels of leadership, the requests for your time and energy will only increase. This is where you can start honing your self-awareness skills.
Which distractions are easy for you to give into? Is scrolling through social media a common reflex for you? How many episodes of The Office did you re-watch the other night? Are you attending too many meetings? Do you allow notifications and emails to bombard you at all times?
In order to remove distractions, you need to start saying “no” more often. If saying “no” is hard for you to do, then start monitoring your time with a time tracking software. Do this for an entire week and see how you feel.
By documenting how much time you’re spending on tasks and in meetings throughout your day, you’ll get a full picture of where you should and shouldn’t be focusing your energy. Did you attend a meeting that your team could have easily handled? Where can you delegate?
Jim Collins, author of Good To Great, advises his readers and community to create a “Stop Doing List.” This list becomes an action plan for the commitments you can release yourself from, the invitations you can politely decline, and the tasks you can delegate.
Every distraction removed from your plate is an opportunity to access that coveted alone time in your schedule.
2. Slow Down And Let Your Thoughts Flow
Now that you’re saying no and getting clear on what you should and shouldn’t focus on, it’s time to take everything down a notch. This is the point in which you’ll be able to truly enjoy your moments of solitude and to develop your self-awareness. Just like you need to remove the distraction from the digital space and workday, you’ll need to remove distractions from your physical space.
Find a dedicated place in your home that informs you that it’s “me-time.” This place can also be outside like on a walk through your neighborhood or in nature.
The overall goal is to access your brain’s Default Mode Network. This set of brain regions is activated when you are focused on internal mental-state processes, such as self-referential processing, autobiographical memory retrieval, or imagining the future. By physically placing yourself in this situation, you’re informing yourself that it’s time for a moment of solitude (this is why Einstein went for those walks!).
One of the most effective ways to get into this state of self-awareness and reflection is through meditation.
But meditation isn’t the only option.
Another way to tap into your internal thoughts is to concentrate on a task that doesn’t require influence from the outside world. Journaling is a very effective way to remove distractions, slow down, and focus on processing your thoughts.
Even household chores, such as washing the dishes or redecorating, are effective ways to let your thoughts flow and to give yourself space and attention needed for introspection and processing.
Whatever your preference is, the most important thing to do is to concentrate on one task at a time and to allow your brain to take control of what you need to learn, know, or discover. Let those neural pathways connect!
3. Chat With A Confidant
At this point, you’re probably thinking: “Why would I talk with someone else if I’m supposed to be carving out more alone time into the day?”
It sounds like a counterintuitive step on your path to achieving more moments of solitude but it’s an important one. Let’s be real—you won’t fully enjoy your solitude without socialization.
William Deresiewicz brings in an interesting perspective and explains this concept as well as the importance of friendship as leaders develop their solitude skills in his lecture titled, Leadership and Solitude:
“Introspection means talking to yourself, and one of the best ways of talking to yourself is by talking to another person. One other person you can trust, one other person to whom you can unfold your soul. One other person you feel safe enough with to allow you to acknowledge things—to acknowledge things to yourself—that you otherwise can’t. Doubts you aren’t supposed to have, questions you aren’t supposed to ask. Feelings or opinions that would get you laughed at by the group or reprimanded by the authorities.
This is what we call thinking out loud, discovering what you believe in the course of articulating it. But it takes just as much time and just as much patience as solitude in the strict sense.”
In other words, to truly develop into a better leader and to become more self-aware, you need to invite others to the process.
In addition, extensive periods of isolation can have negative effects so it’s important to find a healthy balance between solitude and socialization. If you’re feeling increased feelings of isolation, loneliness, anxiety, or depression, then please reach out to a trusted colleague, friend, family member, or a licensed mental health professional.
4. Encourage The Practice
The most effective and admired leaders are those who bring their team along to achieve similar success. As you’re creating more moments for alone time throughout your days and weeks, your employees should have the opportunity to as well.
As a person in a position of leadership, you have the ability to encourage these practices on your team. You can allow your employees to remove distractions, slow down, and let their thoughts flow in a state of solitude by setting expectations and implementing processes that allow them to step away from their workspaces.
An “always-on” culture at work encourages people to support a working environment that is dependent on constant communication and distractions.
Companies that are leading in the remote work and hybrid work structures, such as Gitlab, Atlassian, and Trello, are putting an emphasis on asynchronous communication to minimize productivity pitfalls like context-switching.
Gitlab has an entire initiative dedicated to this way of communication and it’s an integral aspect of their culture. They define asynchronous communication as “the art of communicating and moving projects forward without the need for additional stakeholders to be available at the same time your communique is sent.”
In other words, Gitlab employees communicate on digital channels without expecting immediate responses. This allows team members to have more flexibility in their schedules since they are not expected to be chained to their desk or device in order to respond to every and any message.
So if you’re enjoying a solitude break during your morning or afternoon, your employees should be able to as well! Try practicing and encouraging asynchronous communication and this framework with your team and hopefully you’ll see their overall well-being improve. Plus, if everyone is respectful of each others time and focus throughout the day, that will help with Step 1 😉
Prioritize Peace And Quiet To Become A Supportive Manager
The traditional work schedules and digital technology are created to attract and hold your attention at all hours of the day. Even though productivity is important, processing and self-reflection are equally, if not more, important to be successful in your own career and for leading others.
Just like the renowned composers, scientists, and artists of the world, you too can be a great leader if you schedule time into your day to welcome solitude.
Good or bad, we’d love to hear your thoughts. Find us on Twitter (@trello)!