Three Tips for Using Small Time Blocks for an Open-Ended Thinking Task
When you have a big question to think about, don't wait until you have 2 or 3 hours free to tackle it. There just aren't enough big blocks of time available to make that a practical strategy. Instead, learn how to Velcro together smaller blocks of time--say 25 minutes or so--so that together they give you the effectiveness of a longer block.
The key to meshing small time blocks is making good transitions. Start and end your work block with procedures that ensure each bit of work will follow seamlessly from the previous. Then, together, they will add up to the open-ended thinking time you need. Here are the basic tips for making that happen:
1) Keep your notes in one place.
When you return to the issue, you need to look over the work you did last. Where is it? Don't make this a hard question. Don't even make it a question at all. Make it trivially easy to find the last work you did, by always keeping "thinking" work in one place.
I follow this advice by keeping all my handwritten notes in one thinking notebook, which is always within reach. The notes were made chronologically, so it's easy to find past work. I tape loose notes right into the notebook. Other people use a single computer file for their everyday thinking.
Your system may be different, but make sure it's so simple and easy-to-use that you never have to pause to ask the question, "where are my notes?"
2) Give yourself permission to warm up during the first three minutes
It takes a few minutes to get back into the context. You can't hurry that process. If you try, you'll just strain. So, know that you need to take a few minutes to re-read last-time's notes to activate your mental circuits on this topic.
There are many ways to warm up your mental circuits. Read. Make a list. Do some "thinking on paper." Once the engine is warmed up, you can put your brain in gear and start doing new work.
3) Take 30 seconds at the end to make notes in full sentences on what's next
The alarm sounds. The phone rings. A person arrives at your desk. You need to be prepared for these eventualities. Chances are, you will sometimes need to interrupt your thinking before you're ready to stop.
And that's wrenching. You've just spent 10 minutes--or an hour-- warming up your mental circuits and digging into the heart of the issue. If you just stop now, you will have to redo much of that effort to get back to the same place.
Don't throw that work away! Hold up your hand with a "just wait" sign and take 30 seconds to write some notes to yourself. Sum up. What were you doing? What were you going to do next? What last idea do you want to record to explore next time? Write the answers out in full sentences so you can understand exactly what you meant when you come back later.
The 30 seconds you spend now will save 10 minutes or more when you come back today or tomorrow, by making it much easier (and less painful) to recover the mental context you interrupted.
Are you wishing you had uninterrupted time you don't have? Take better advantage of the time do you have--by using these three tips.