Sam Rees-Adams: The importance of doing nothing


Many years ago I taught a boy who regularly complained his mind was full and he could not learn any more. Funnily enough, his mind always seemed to become full when he was asked to do something he did not want to do. He was a modern day Hamlet, seemingly aware of the danger of “thinking too precisely on the event”, choosing to lessen the risk by avoiding thinking whenever possible.

As incredulous as it leaves me, I have come to the conclusion he might have had a point. Not about the avoidance of thinking but about the need to say “no more” and step aside for a while. There are times when our minds can feel too full, overwhelmed by the volume and speed of information we encounter in today’s workplace.

As our professional lives become ever faster and more complex, we will do better by ourselves, our colleagues and our clients if we allow our minds to relax. Time to think is a precious commodity and should not be undervalued.  While it is true we are judged on our actions, that should not be confused with actively doing something measurable every minute of the day. Actions are successful when they are underpinned by proper thought and planning, and this requires time and space.

We can all find opportunities to do this. For example, a colleague of mine is working towards a policy of no meeting Fridays to give himself some space not only to get things done but also to plan and to think.

And what about commuting? Make the most of this precious time with no other demands. Focus on that issue you have been meaning to devote some time to and give your mind free rein to wander round the problem.

There is another opportunity that can often be overlooked. Most of us do at least one repetitive task that does not require much thinking. Whether it is just filing emails or making the tea, it can give your mind five or 10 minutes to rest and recharge. Stuffing envelopes for a mass mailing may not be anybody’s idea of an intellectually stimulating activity but its rhythm and routine can free your mind and enable you to grapple with issues that require some deep thought.

You may think this is just navel gazing: you do not have time to review, you need to react. But there does not have to be a conflict between the two.  Athletes have superb reaction times and a split second can differentiate between success and failure. This does not happen by accident but is developed by constantly reviewing, evaluating and improving. Taking genuine time to reflect and review can improve reaction time and the quality of results.  Reflection is a vital part of continuing professional development, so why should it be a less important part of everyday work?

If you are still not convinced I leave you with this: when a name is on the tip of your tongue but you cannot remember it, does intense concentration and refusing to think about anything else do the trick? Or does it come back to you suddenly, effortlessly, after you have relaxed your mind and given it some space? Exactly.

Sam Rees-Adams is head of external accreditation at the Chartered Institute for Securities & Investment