Nutshell: Making the space to ‘be’, rather than do

Written by
Future Talent Learning

06 Jan 2020

06 Jan 2020 • by Future Talent Learning

Taking the time to reflect and ‘choose how we show up’ can influence our wellbeing, presence and impact at work.

In 2018, executive advisory firm Egon Zehnder published the results of a survey into the human side of being a CEO. Unsurprisingly, doing the top job in this period of rapid transformation is far from easy. Perhaps more surprisingly, the CEOs surveyed were remarkably candid about the need to keep learning, to transform themselves as well as their organisations, having the open mindsets and self-awareness that would make Carol Dweck and Daniel Goleman very happy indeed. “[It’s about] stepping back and reflecting, acknowledging that I do not have all the answers and do not need to have them,” said one.

Those top CEOs also acknowledged a difficulty many of them seem to face: the tension between what they identify as ‘being’, working on their personal presence and impact, and ‘doing’, executing the operational requirements of the role. Aware that the ‘being’ part of their role is crucial to their own – and their organisations’ – wellbeing, many were looking to take proactive steps to protect the time needed to “think and prioritise and maximise my personal impact”.

We ordinary mortals may feel a long way away from an elite pack of global CEOs, but it’s intriguing that so many of them could identify with a very real struggle for leaders at all levels of our organisations: finding time to be as well as do. 

As we learn in the self-awareness module, being a good leader starts with knowing ourselves and knowing how best we can add value and that taking the time to develop ourselves, to plan and reflect, is an essential part of the role. But, in the heat of the battle, we also know it’s easier said than done.

The great mid-20th century claims that modernity would give people more time (English economist John Maynard Keynes anticipated that 15-hour workweeks would become the norm by 2030) seem no more than a pipe dream to us these days. Managing our time effectively, finding the space for that much-needed reflection and perspective, remains a 21st-century conundrum at the very heart of our working lives. 

Building ‘space’ into the working week

Some respite may perhaps come in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is catalysing long-term changes in working practices – from an acceptance of remote working to a renewed enthusiasm for a four-day week. The latter has been shown to enhance both wellbeing and productivity, stimulating a healthy pressure and forced downtime during which workers have the headspace to recharge and focus on other elements of their lives.

Champions of a four-day week range from the country of Iceland (whose five-year pilot was recently proclaimed “an overwhelming success”) to consumer goods giant Unilever, which is trialling it in New Zealand. Spain also intends to pilot a shorter working week in the aftermath of COVID.

Philadelphia-based software company Wildbit transitioned permanently to a four-day week in 2017, putting a laser focus on outcomes over output. Its direction was strongly influenced by computer science professor Cal Newport’s emphasis on the importance of facilitating ‘deep work’ – “professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit”. In Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Newport argues that the upper limit for deep work is four hours a day since the brain becomes fatigued after heavy use.

He sets out four core rules, advising us to:

  • work deeply, scheduling time for deep work and creating routines and rituals that make this easier to achieve, without reliance on willpower.
  • embrace boredom, resting our brains during breaks and allowing them to wander, instead of reverting to inessential tasks. Constantly switching back and forth from focus to distraction, or from distraction to distraction, undermines our ability to concentrate, he argues.
  • quit social media (or at least cut down usage), treating it as a time-stealing diversion.
  • drain the shallows, removing unnecessary, non-cognitively demanding ‘shallow work’ (such as email correspondence) from our schedules, and setting aside blocks of time for shallow and deep work. We should aim to work better instead of longer, he believes.

Finding this philosophy compelling, Wildbit’s CEO, Natalie Nagele, developed a people-first strategy, designed to maximise her teams’ creativity, collaboration and problem-solving, with an emphasis on giving staff the time and space to concentrate. She concluded that a four-day week was a logical part of this strategy.

Other organisations have found ways to build breathing space into the traditional five-day working week. For example, 3M’s 15% Culture encourages employees to set aside a segment of their time to cultivate and pursue innovative ideas that excite them, while research conducted by the 4 Day Week Global Foundation points to the benefits of ‘pro-time’. Under this, staff block out distraction-free time to do the ‘important-but-non-urgent tasks’ that sit in the second quadrant of Eisenhower’s Urgent-Important Matrix; namely, the long-term development and strategising activities that we rarely get round to but are vital for individual and organisational success.

It should, however, be noted that such policies only succeed where the time set aside to think or strategise is an integral part of an individual’s workload. At Google, engineers reportedly referred to its '20-percent time’ policy as “120-percent time”, because it became something that people did in addition to their full workload, rather than replacing  a portion of it. There has been speculation about whether the initiative still officially exists.

Busy is the new stupid

Of course, we can’t entirely blame the fast-paced world of work for our time-management challenges. If we’re honest, some of our innate human characteristics also make us vulnerable to time pressures, distractions and a failure to delegate. We may find it hard to say no because of a desire to please, or a fear of offending someone. We may find delegating difficult because of that perfectionist streak, or an insecurity that we won’t be able to control outcomes effectively enough. We might find it impossible not to check our social media feeds every few minutes. Some very human traits, such as ego, pride, insecurity or envy can get in the way of even the sincerest desire to use our time efficiently and well; ‘being busy’ can be a status symbol, implying our indispensability.

If we want to find more time to be, we need, first, to look to ourselves. We may not be able to change the world in which we work (at least not all at once), but, stoic-like, we can take charge of how we face up to the challenge, tracking our time and how we prioritise it.

In a now famous exchange, Bill Gates’ amazement at Warren Buffett’s empty, analogue diary is an objective time-management lesson for us all. One of the world’s most successful investors, Buffett also has plenty of wisdom when it comes to making the space to be. Being not without means, he can buy just about anything, but he “can’t buy more time”. So, he has to make the most of the time he has.

The lesson Gates takes from him is that filling up your schedule as a leader is not a “proxy of your seriousness”; there is value, too, in making time to sit and think and read. It’s up to us all to control our own time. Besides, it’s arguable that leadership is all about thinking, figuring out where our organisation needs to go, how it can get there, and reflecting on the ‘emergent strategy’ that develops piecemeal, over time, in the absence of a specific mission and goals.

Brain science also shows us that busy may really be the new stupid. An overflowing schedule might well be an indicator that we’re trying too hard to remain in focused thinking mode for too long, concentrating on the issues and problems at hand – the doing – when what we really need is to switch off, to allow our brains to relax and refresh and to make the connections associated with diffuse thinking, to facilitate the being. 

In an “environment of manic productivity”, we reflect less and limit our growth, echoes leadership consultant Peter Bregman, urging us to take small ‘time outs’ to reflect and recharge. In an article for Harvard Business Review, he suggests taking a few minutes’ walk in a “metaphorical garden” – which is the place or situation in which we do our best thinking; for him, this tends to be a short outdoor activity or a chat with colleagues.

“If I go for a bike ride, a run, or a walk, it’s practically inevitable that I’ll figure something out and come back with a better perspective,” he explains. “This is my favorite, most dependable garden for creative ideas. Another is writing. As I write, my ideas develop and my experiences gently nudge me towards my continuously developing worldview.”

However, making ourselves take such “restorative action” requires intentional self-regulation, points out British journalist and writer Oliver Burkeman, highlighting what he describes as “the too-tired-to-rest trap”. For example, we may resort to ‘bedtime procrastination’ when we are so exhausted that getting off the sofa to clean our teeth seems too much of an effort. He points to research by Christian Jarrett who advises us to start taking non-cognitive breaks early in the day, before we feel we need to, as these bring the most benefit.

“Don’t be shocked if it doesn’t feel good at first,” Burkeman concludes. “When you’re all keyed up on cognitive tasks, stopping can be more painful than continuing. Yes, you need a break. But don’t expect to want one.”

Cultivating serendipity

It’s not only top businessmen who understand the power of unleashing our unconscious thought processes; the worlds of art and science are similarly awash with these “eureka!” moments. While our conscious mind is relaxed, our brain is able to form a creative solution to a problem or finally link ideas that may have been eluding us. 

Making those connections is fundamental to another, oft-misunderstood, concept: serendipityWriting in Harvard Business Review, Mark de Rond and his colleagues make the case that serendipity is not a proxy for luck or chance. Rather, its power lies in an “ability to recombine a series of casual observations into something meaningful”. The good news is that de Rond believes it can be “cultivated, bought and sold” – if we’re alive and open to the opportunities it offers, and prepared to invest time in something that seems to fly in the face of the twin contemporary obsessions of optimisation and efficiency. But, as a “close relative of creativity”, serendipity offers a degree of “wastefulness” that might benefit us all.  

Nor, ironically, can serendipity be left entirely to chance. We need to put ourselves in the way of those casual observations, whether that’s interrogating the past or spending time with people, especially those who do not necessarily think like we do. According to philosopher John Stuart Mill, “It is hardly possible to overrate the value… of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar.” This, says Mill, is one of the “primary sources of progress”.

It’s an idea at the heart of Herminia Ibarra’s championing of leadership outsight, the need for leaders to seek out fresh, external perspectives and experiences to take us beyond the world of routine operations. It’s about embracing the new, reassessing how we can add most value in our jobs, developing fresh and different networks and challenging ourselves to experiment and explore.

As leaders, we need to become the bridges between ourselves, our teams and the outside world (rather than internal hubs, directing internal operations between teams and individuals like an air traffic controller who never stops to look up and see the bigger picture). By developing outsight, we are better able to make those crucial connections between people and ideas that make all the difference.

Beware of the tunnel: the magic of slack

Psychologists Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir pick up on the serendipity-blighting power of day-to-day busyness in their book, Scarcity. They argue that our minds are actually less efficient when we feel we lack something, time included. This scarcity mindset tends to consume all of our mental bandwidth. Mullainathan and Shafir call it “tunnelling”: focusing so heavily on one thing that everything else goes hang. When we’re talking about time, scarcity – that busyness, our obsession with doing – tends to reinforce our instinct to pack even more into our busy schedules. Otherwise, we feel that we’re simply not doing enough; that we’re not maximising our efficiency. 

In fact, their answer to time poverty is to cut ourselves some slack. We’re generally pretty bad at doing this because we focus on what can be done now and don’t think about what might happen in the future: “The present is imminently clear whereas future contingencies are less pressing and harder to imagine. When the intangible future comes face to face with the palpable present, slack feels like a luxury.”

But without some slack, we’re destined never to catch up with ourselves, always one interruption or unexpected event away from disaster. Just as some public services have found themselves hoisted by the efficiency petard when faced with a global pandemic, so we risk an unsustainable future if we don’t create the slack we need to give ourselves, and our organisations, the perspective we need to see beyond that scarcity tunnel. 

This sense of perspective – the time to be, to reflect and think – is at the heart of how we manage ourselves and our time as leaders; how we build resilience and create sustainability. Leadership expert Leslie Peters sees the balance between doing the work and being the leader as the central challenge leaders face: “Leadership isn’t something you do; it’s someone you are. We never say, ‘you do leadership really well’. We say, ‘you are a great leader’.”

In her book, Finding Time to Lead, she invokes leaders to be intentional about choosing “what we will do and how we show up”. And this means taking the time to work out what matters most, to avoid getting bogged down in the doing. 

Sometimes, simply staring out of that window is just the right thing to do.


Test your understanding

  • Define the common barriers to making space to ‘be’ – and possible solutions.
  • What does Mark de Rond say about serendipity, and how might we cultivate it in our professional lives?

What does it mean for you?

  • Consider how you might build regular ‘breathing space’ into your own working week – what are your ‘metaphorical gardens’?
  • Deflect on some of the ‘important-but-non-urgent tasks’ you could tackle if you adopted a policy of ‘pro-time’.


Register for insights and updates or implement one of our levy-funded leadership programmes by clicking on the buttons below.