What’s your Optimal Tension Zone?…or…How to Preserve your “Thinking Around” Time?

blog21When the son of a good friend of mine was around 6 or 7, his mom used to find him walking slowly around the yard with a certain look on his face.  “Petey,” she’d ask “what are you doing?”  “Oh,” he’d answered, a bit startled as if coming out of a trance, “this is my ‘thinking around’ time.  I really need my ‘thinking around’ time.”  That phrase always stuck with me over the years….how wise Pete was to know at such a young age that “downtime” is critical to wellbeing.

We all need thinking around time – just to wander and allow ideas to gestate.

Now, I’m a list maker.  I use tools like the Action Method and Google to organize my to-do list.  My family chuckles at my checklists, which can be found in my purse, on my desk and odd places, like under the bed.  Productivity matters, right?   And that organizational discipline works for me, for the most part, but being a slave to it can also squeeze out my thinking around time.

This week, I had a restless feeling—I  just wasn’t being productive!  Only a week earlier I had tackled and conquered a difficult project, writing an in-depth case study that involved the content of more than ten interviews, organized the remainder of my summer projects, and followed through on several important deadlines.  I got to mark an entire column those oh-so-satisfying checks on my to-do list. So why couldn’t I seem to focus this week?  Each day, I’d start with the best of intentions, but end up getting lost in the black hole of email or playing with my new iPad, or allowing myself to jump unproductively from task to task, finishing only a part of each one.  (And my rule is you cannot check off an item unless it is finished.)  It was frustrating.

blog21-2Turned out I really needed some thinking around time.  At one point, I stomped out of the house in frustration, deciding if I wasn’t making progress on that blasted list, at least I should get some exercise.   Puffing along on my walk, my brain slowly began to relax a bit, and I found my mind wandering, turning over ideas and thoughts in random, un-list-like ways.  In the middle of this disorganized, chaotic, storm of thinking, I had a BIG IDEA.  THE BIG IDEA itself (more on that in a later blog) is not as important as how it came to me.

My lesson learned was:  worklife is a mix of thinking around time and executing on the good idea.    This is what Caroline Baillie calls the “optimal tension zone” – where you are just engaged enough to come up with a good idea, but now so task-oriented that it blocks your creativity. And, she adds, the optimal tension zone is different for each person.

Now of course, to make something of that BIG IDEA, I’ll need to start a few checklists and work my way through them, but for now, thanks, Petey,  for reminding me to always  preserve my thinking around time.