Time spent thinking deeply is not wasted time

16 January 2020
16 Jan 2020
Cafe Literato
3 mins

I learned something recently that I want to make sure I remember. Maybe it’ll also be useful to you.

Everywhere I’ve worked so far, my job was some kind of making, design or software development or writing. I could always sit down at work, open up a queue of things to be made, and implement it. There was a clear input and a clear output, and I could measure how much work I’d done by looking at how much input led to how much output. Work time was making time, and if I wasn’t making, then I wasn’t working.

In this kind of work, it was rare that I needed to just sit down and think about what to do, or whether it was worth doing.

But now, my job is only sometimes making things, and many times setting product strategy and direction – deciding what to make, and whether something’s worth doing. I’m learning that I shouldn’t expect to have an always-ready queue of tasks, because now, a part of my job is to decide what goes on that queue in the first place. This seems obvious when I describe it this way, but it took me a while to realize, because I used to measure my work by how much I was making. And whenever I’m thinking carefully about whether something’s worth doing or when we should do it, I’m not really making anything. I’m just thinking, sitting there.

And that didn’t feel productive, because I wasn’t making anything. So I went back to work, coding or writing or designing.

The thing is, time spent thinking deeply is not wasted time. My work isn’t just making things now, it’s also thinking. In order to get out of my old habit of just making, I need to actively allocate time – time I could otherwise be spending making real things – and instead use that time to think carefully about problems, options, tradeoffs… what makes sense to make now, what we might be missing, what bets we should be making that’ll pay off in the long run, even if it seems weird in the short term.

Time spent thinking isn’t wasted time, but it sort of feels wasted, because I don’t have lines of code or photoshop files or pages of writing to show for it. I just have… thoughts. and opinions, and questions, and decisions. And that doesn’t feel like work to me yet, even though it definitely is.

If I’m always just making, then eventually, I’ll run out of things in the queue, and when that happens, I’ll just grab the problem that seems easiest to solve, or the problem that someone else has told me is the most important, and solve that. Repeat. I’ll have lots of input, and I’ll create lots of output, because I like building things. But I’ll only be looking at what’s immediately ahead of me, instead of thinking about what really makes the most sense to make, which requires thinking, which requires time. If I’m busy building, I won’t look up to set direction and re-orient, just chugging along instead at a good pace, but towards an indeterminate direction.

In this new and different kind of work, I need to spend more time thinking and less time making, and tweak my internal measurement of what feels like productive work. It’s gonna feel weird at first. But the things I make need to be the right things, and the best way to ensure that’s the case is to spend more time thinking about what I put on that queue.

Spend more time thinking.


If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, Moving forward.

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