I like long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me.
— Noel Coward
Sir Coward was known for his wit. But there is some germ of truth in every humor and this quote is no exception. It is always good to have some time and space to one self.
We tend to get more done when we have uninterrupted time to ourself. Good ideas come in lonely long walks. We solve problems in morning shower. We take a long drive on our favorite country road to clear our mind. Even, a brilliant idea or solution is there as we wake up after a good long sleep!
All this is true. We generally do our best when abetted by solitude and a conducive environment. But these observations do not have to sound as mythical as they do. They are actually grounded in the basic principles of productivity and time management.
There are two common attributes in all these scenarios – the long walks, the picturesque drives, the morning showers and the uninterrupted sleep – that help explain why they are effective for our productivity and creativity.
First: There are no or minimal distractions. No annoying people (probably out for that walk), buzzing blackberries, email toasts, poky co-workers, Facebook notifications, office banter over your head, IM pings and that friendly Joe who just finished his task and wants you to have a smoke with him outside!
Second: You have uninterrupted, contiguous chunk of time to do what you want to do. This is a highly underrated time management principle. We do not just need a distraction free zone. We also need it long enough to achieve something substantial. You need a sizable block of time to be able to think through a problem, analyze all aspects, coalesce the varied thoughts scattered all over your head and soaking for a while, rethink and evaluate the alternatives and consequences. This is what you mainly get in long walks and showers. Even in sleep, a part of your brain is awake and doing something (creepy). Just having a few minutes of Joe out for a smoke won’t help. You need Joe to stay out there and finish the entire pack!
Peter Drucker in “The Effective Executive” summarizes time management as three stages. First figure out where the time goes (record & analyze the time). Second, manage time (schedule the most important things first). Third, consolidate time (not do the important things in dribs and drabs of time but schedule a big enough chunk for them).
Here is the caveat though. You need the uninterrupted, contiguous block of time to be just long enough – not overly long or unlimited. Taking the entire afternoon off for a long walk would not help (neither would staying in shower forever). You need to time box it or else the Parkinson’s Law will set in. Drucker suggests 90 minutes. Its a threshold where you can stay effective without losing focus. There should be a maximum that Joe stays out for a smoke without you missing him!