Work and life comes to us in ebbs and flows. The “ebbs”, or “downtime”, can be a great opportunity for “slow thinking”.



Have you been working on a large, challenging, long-term undertaking? Perhaps a startup, or a large corporate project?

You are probably going to find that there are up-times and down-times. Ebbs and flows.

There will be stretches of time during which you’re fully engaged and “in-flow”, i.e. you’re spending multiple hours of a day, perhaps 6 or even 8, and those times are fully engaging you, and you’re using most of your mental and physical capacities, and you’re engaged in the immediate problem at hand.

But you will also probably notice that there are downtimes. These will vary in length and frequency, according to the nature and kind of work, the industry you’re in, etc. For example, some industries are seasonal. Some corporations have periods where people are away on holiday at certain times of the year. Some consulting relationships go through periods of less direct contact/communication with the client.

These “down” periods could go for months or weeks at a time, or parts of the week (e.g. weekdays vs. weekends), or parts of the day (e.g. morning vs. afternoon).

It can be helpful to notice these downtimes and to spot the patterns in them. This is because, during these downtimes, you can perform activities, mental or otherwise, which are better suited to downtime. Activities which would be more difficult to do during “uptime”.

During uptime, you’re in a more “reactive” move, responding rapidly to events and situations as they occur. Whereas during downtime, you can do more of what I call “slow thinking”.

By “slow thinking” I’m referring to things such as strategic thinking or long-term planning. Taking a step back and thinking about the bigger picture. Asking what you’re trying to do. What are the broad goals? Are my day-to-day actions (when I’m in “uptime”) appropriately focused on, and contributing to, those goals? And, heck, am I enjoying myself? Is this sustainable over the long term? Are there strategic changes or tweaks I could be making? For example, could I be taking my effort in one domain and applying it to a different market, where it’s more sought-after or more valuable, or applying it to an additional market, so that I can increase my customer-base?

Using down-time in this way may not only be beneficial – it may be critical. It may only be in those slower contemplative moments that you identify a major problem or issue or risk to what you’re doing, that otherwise would have gone un-noticed in the hustle and bustle of “getting stuff done”. So it can be important to pull yourself out of up-time, if needed, and deliberately move into down-time, to give yourself a proper chance to have insights you wouldn’t have otherwise had the time and space to have.

The down-time can function as a kind of rehearsal for up-time, because, during down-time, you are preparing ahead-of-time for the decisions you’ll need to make and the actions you’ll need to perform when you’re back in up-time again.

During down-time I recommend putting yourself in spaces and doing things that mentally relax and inspire you. Perhaps visiting a calm and peaceful place such as a park or a camping site. Perhaps walking or exercising. And giving your mind a chance to “tick over” everything. Everyone has a different way and you might have your own way of creating a space. But whichever way you choose, it should give your mind freedom to contemplate, wander, retrospect, revisit and then be strategic about the future and the next steps.


Spaces can be chosen carefully, to better match the kind of activity you’re doing, and make you more effective.


When you got out of bed this morning, what sort of space did you see around you? What colour was your ceiling and how high? What kind of furniture and furnishings did you see around you? What colour were your bedsheets?

And when you got up and went for a walk, perhaps went to get breakfast from the kitchen or grab a coffee, what kind of surroundings were you in? And then when you went to work or to meet someone, what kind of space was that? Did you go up flights of stairs or catch an elevator? What kind of space was that? What colour were the pieces of furniture around the office – the walls, the dividers, the desks, etc? What sorts of colours and shapes did you see around you?

It’s been common knowledge for some time that spaces can affect how we think and feel. Companies will spend millions of dollars on quality spaces. If they were only trying to cut costs, perhaps we would all work in sheds or warehouses. But no, it’s often considered important to invest in a good, suitable office space for workers. And it’s not only companies that do this, but also government institutions, universities, schools, etc. We are surrounded by various kinds of buildings and outdoor and indoor spaces.

Because these spaces can affect how we think and feel, perhaps there are ways we actively choose and how and when to use them, to our advantage.

If you’re putting in a lot of hard work on some project or other, your efforts may be helped by a space that motivates you. A space that makes you feel empowered or inspired. Perhaps a buzzing cafe, or a vibrant co-working space, or a university campus.

Or if you’re working on something stressful or complicated, perhaps you need a space that’s quiet, calm and plain, to put your mind at ease. Perhaps a park, a library, a museum or your bedroom.

Why not go over the list of spaces you occupy throughout a typical week? You could even grab a pen and paper and write them out as a list.

And then think about those spaces and see if there are some small tweaks you could make, so that certain activities can be done in a more suitable space.

If you’re trying to start your own company on Mondays, and feeling a bit lonely or de-motivated, try moving your work from that quiet living room in your house to that buzzing cafe next door. You might even transfigure the setting, imagining that those other people are also part of your venture and are working with you!

If you’re trying to solve a tricky machine-learning problem on Wednesday, and need as much mental space, concentration and focus as possible, try doing it in the serenity of a park, or the quiet, calm monumentality of a large museum.

Also have a think about what spaces are available to you. There are the usual work areas, such a cafes, libraries, etc. but there are other spaces that don’t always come to mind right away. For example, a local community hall could be leased for a night, cheaply or for free. You could use it to practice public speaking, or to work with a small team on a startup.

Select your spaces wisely and make them work for you.


Your job sucks. Or does it? “Transfiguring” your work can make it more fun, comfortable and enjoyable.


Remember being a child and playing dress-up games with your friends/siblings? You might have pretended to be a fireman, a doctor, a policeman, or play some other kind of role.

What a lot of fun it was! You’d dress the part, you’d talk the part, you’d act the part. And you would imagine yourself in that role.

And then a few years go by, and you find yourself in a different profession, one which you wouldn’t have dreamed about as a child. Perhaps you’re being an executive, or you’re writing code, or you’re designing something, or you’re selling to people.

Not all jobs seem to be fun up-front, and perhaps that’s why we get paid to work. We’re being paid to do activities we probably wouldn’t normally do, by default, without prompting.

But I have observed that that the way you imagine yourself, while doing a job, can affect the way you feel about that job, and perhaps how motivated and productive you are at that job.

So what if you were to re-imagine your job?

Depending on your work environment and what it is that you do, there are various kinds of challenges you may or may not face. But there are also various ways of “imagining” that work, which could make it more enjoyable.

  • You are often called into difficult people situations. You find yourself in meetings where there is a lot of conflict, disagreement, difficulty understanding people or knowing what they want, different people making different demands of you. That can be stressful. In this situation, you might imagine yourself as: “Negotiator for the U.N.”. So those conflicts and tensions that seem to be a bummer can actually feel like a lot of fun, when you imagine yourself as someone working for the U.N., in a challenging but important role, that will have big consequences for the future of nations or countries. Your real job mightn’t be as big or epic as that! But that doesn’t mean you can’t imagine yourself as that, and get into a really fun, comfortable zone that way.
  • You are not really doing much. Work is slow/boring. There’s lots of downtime. You could imagine yourself as a secret agent working for the FBI/CIA/MI9. You have intelligence and multifarious capabilities and have been sought out by the government. They don’t quite know what to put you on right now, but they just need you to be there, ready and waiting, to act and jump when the time comes. To find a critical piece of information, at the right time, and act on it fast. And your action can save the country! If you could imagine yourself as that person in that role, it’s no longer a boring/dead-end job, but rather, something critical, exciting and fun.
  • You have to do lots of reading and research to do. It’s tedious. There’s a large quantity of documentation. Pages, paragraphs, sentences, all have to be read and scoured. Perhaps you could imagine yourself as a judge in court. You’re going through the details of the case, prior to a hearing, and you have to analyse the arguments of all sides, being careful, unbiased, impartial. You have to think critically and come to the most fair, just understanding of the case, and help to deliver the most just outcome for those involved. So your tedious, long-winded job suddenly feels important, crucial, and perhaps even prestigious.
  • You’re in a busy, fast, loud, noisy environment. There’s lots of action, words, movement. People are coming at you from all sides. You are constantly having to react. This might seem stressful. But you could imagine yourself as one of the top traders on wall street! You’re yelling at other traders, getting the latest news and prices. It’s a high-impact, high-energy job. You’re suiting up daily, going onto the trading floor and doing big deals, racking up millions of dollars in profit. It can feel fun, exciting and energising, rather than draining.
  • You’re training and mentoring one or more people. Most of your time is spend troubleshooting other people’s issues or difficulties or teaching them how to resolve these themselves. You could imagine yourself as a doctor or physician of some kind. You have a large body of knowledge and experience, people are coming to you with chronic pains and conditions, and you’re applying that expertise to helping and healing them. Calmly, carefully, methodically, you diagnose the patient’s issue, while comforting them and telling them they’re going to be OK. It’s a job that requires a lot of expertise, and by practicing it, you are giving others crucially needed help and healing. It’s a job of profound importance.
  • You’re giving a lot of counselling and advice to one very important individual, perhaps an executive. You might imagine yourself as a therapist. Your client comes to you with lots of anxiety, stress, difficult emotions, perhaps pressure from lots of others around them. And they’re offering up these problems to you. And as a therapist, you’re someone who’s able to help, but who first needs to understand them, to patiently hear them out and listen to their problems, and then to give them the right kind of influence, to help them help themselves and move forward.

The above are just a handful of job “types” and fantasies that you could apply to them. And imagining is just the start. You could (maybe!) take things even further and physically dress the part! Try wearing a suit, if you find yourself in that “busy, fast, loud” stock-trading-style environment. Or perhaps try using props. Perhaps putting pictures or posters on your desk that put you in the mood of the “imaginary” role you’re playing.

A closing point I’d like to make is that the job you’re actually doing and the job you imagine yourself doing may not be worlds apart. The job where you need to be patient, critical, unbiased, may not be all that different from the job of a judge. The judge’s work can affect the course of people’s live. So might your work too, if you consider the impacts, down the line, of what you’re doing. Think of the lives of the customers you serve, or the others within the organisation. The quality of your work may determine whether the company stays afloat and continues to employ people, or whether it goes down and has to lay people off. Likewise for the other “styles” of work. You may not know how others out there are benefiting from your work.

So try “transfiguring” your work. Wear a different hat, literally or mentally, and see if you can have a bit more fun at what you do!


Life doesn’t always go to plan. How might we think about plans in a way that keeps us motivated and moving forward?


Have you ever had one of those “face-palm” moments in life, where it suddenly hit you that you had made a less-than-optimal decision? If you had known more, you might have made a different decision, or no decision at all!

The frustrating thing is, now you do know! Now you can see that X and Y are necessary, in order to achieve Z. But at the time you made the decision, you weren’t aware of this.

The problem is, at the time, you didn’t have the information or awareness to know what the problem with your decision was going to be, whereas now you do know. And I think this reveals something about how work gets done and things get achieved in time, which is: not everything happens in the order that we think it will happen.

We may have a model of the world in our minds, which is sequential and tied to certain dates and times, kind of like a flowchart. For example:


A leads to B leads to C and D, D leads to E and F, and E and F lead to G.

The way things actually work out, often is quite different. For example:


A leads to B. B seems like it will lead to C, but actually ends up leading all the way to Z. And it’s only when we get to Z that we then see the whole alphabet, and that the process involves all 26 letters, not just the 6 or 7 we started out with!

We can’t really change the fact that reality often doesn’t go to plan. However, we can offer ourselves some mental consolation and self-forgivenness.

We can remember how much we didn’t know at the time. Give that memory space. And give ourselves “permission in retrospect” to have not known everything. “I didn’t know, we didn’t know”. And because that time has already passed, we can’t go back in a time-machine and make it any different (at least, not until Elon Musk gets round to time-travel!)

So, in a sense, there wasn’t necessarily ever a problem. The project did go “according to plan”, but it was just a different plan than we had originally understood! Perhaps a larger plan, perhaps smaller. But it is a plan, and there is a structure to it. We simply need to maintain our awareness of the change, adapt to it and move with it.

As you go through this kind of change many times, over the course of a career, you develop mental processes and tools for working in this way. Rather than our plans becoming like a large structure, say a tower made of stones, which can’t bend or move, our plans become more like a ship, which can be steered in one direction, then steered in another, moored and unmoored, or taken to a warehouse, dis-assembled and re-assembled.

So a change in plan isn’t a catastrophe. It’s valuable information that we can use to steer the “ship” of our work and make new discoveries along the way!