One of the things Bill Gates did was to take a semi-annual ‘Think Week’ retreat. During this week he would extract himself from all obligations and hole up in a hotel somewhere with a stack of books to read. To Bill Gates these retreats were critical to his ability to stay ahead of big picture trends in industry that might have otherwise surprised Microsoft. Sometimes these retreats resulted in major strategy shifts for the company.
The rules for these retreats were simple, he was not to be contacted except for emergencies. And presumably he had amassed a reading list recommended to him by his peers over the previous 6 months.
Bill Gates is not alone in the practice of going into seclusion to fully focus on important things.
Religious people have been practising seclusion for centuries as a way to deeply explore their beliefs. Many writers are known to use retreats, or hotel rooms as ways remove distraction and get a burst of productivity.
I know many software developers that find they get a lot done on long flights, and have heard of more than one developer that swears by trans-atlantic cruises as a way to avoid the numerous distractions and become productive.
Taking time to really think about a problem deeply can often benefit from some isolation. When you are alone in your thoughts and have the time to fully develop your ideas it puts you in a unique position. There are so few people who think deeply on topics. Most decisions are made by impulse and intuition – which often is good enough – but for difficult problems which require new concepts or unique approaches we need to invest a bit more time to read, learn and think.
As an employee your ability to take these sorts of retreats is severely restricted. Bosses want to have something to show for the money they pay you to sit and think quietly can be a difficult sell.
This is just one of the things that makes being a contractor/consultant so appealing. When you can make your own decisions about how to spend your time, then it’s possible to invest in taking a week to isolate yourself and regroup, or produce something.
A think week is also something that is difficult to justify when you’re living paycheck to paycheck. Using up a week of precious vacation days, or taking unpaid leave presents a risk, especially given that when you come back to work you may not have the time to follow through on what you did during your retreat.
Based on the effectiveness of a think week, as reported by several high profile people, it’s unfortunate that they can be so difficult to execute on yourself. Time is a tight commodity and obligations can be hard to wiggle out of. However if you can manage to schedule one there can be good payback.