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.


Does your schedule work for you? Here I present the “modular schedule” – a way of introducing flexibility and adaptability while preserving consistency and regularity.


Open your calendar. Maybe it’s a physical calendar on your desk. Maybe it’s a virtual calendar on your smartphone, tablet or laptop. Have a look at the grid. You can see days of the week and times of the day. And the calendar tool enables you to easily create appointments and meetings and reminders. And those can easily be made to recur, so that, for example, every Wednesday at the same time, you attend an exercise class, or every Friday night at this time, you meet this person.

Using these tools can help you to structure your time and introduce some consistency and regularity, which helps you to get into productive rhythms, predict your free time and balance various priorities.

However, using such tools may also introduce a fair amount of rigidity. For example, you might have exercise on Wednesday night, but you start to feel very sick on Wednesday afternoon, forcing you to skip exercise. Or you have to miss your regular appointment on Friday night, because you realise you’ll be away on a trip, and won’t be back in time. Or you miss some other appointment because something comes up, e.g. a lengthy tax return.

A calendar with regular events occurring every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday
A standard calendar features consistency and regularity, but might it also be rigid and inflexible?

Is there a way to schedule that gives us some structure, but also some flexibility?

Recently I’ve been partially experimenting with what I’ll call a “modular schedule“. Rather than scheduling specific dates and times for an event, I’ll just specify a duration (and optionally, a location) and make the event a moveable “module”.

Say it’s exercise – e.g. weight training. I decide on a place that I’ll do that, the gym. I know where that place is and how long it will take to get there. I know what activities I’ll be doing and what equipment I’ll need. And I can time-box it to, say, 1.5 hours (including travel time). So there is a sense of regularity and expectation in the event.

But because I’m not pinning it down to a time and date, the event can be moved and changed. So if I’m too sick to exercise on Wednesday, that module is still there, and it can be moved to the next day or two days later. I can take a moment on Thursday to pause, and think, “well, I’m feeling well now, and I’ve got 3 hours free, what can I do?”. And then it’s easy to slot in that 1.5-hour module exercise.

Two modules – a 1-hour exercise module and a 15-minute coffee with Jill module
Example of a modular schedule. Two modules – time-boxed, but also moveable.

By using this method, it can become easier to change and adapt your schedule on-the-fly, because you have a small set of recurring activities in mind, along with how long they’ll take (and where you’ll do them), but because you haven’t locked yourself into a time (and perhaps place, if it can be done anywhere), then you can move those activities around. You can cancel, re-order, manipulate, move them around, just like chess pieces on a board.

Another advantage of this technique is that it can enable you to allocate time more strategically. So if there’s a particularly good moment to do something, you can wait until that moment. For example, perhaps its a sunny day and the weather is nice and warm, and you think, “that’s a perfect time to walk the dog”. So you can take move your “walking the dog” module to that time. Or maybe it’s rainy, cold and miserable outside, so now is the perfect time to go to the library or the cafe, open your laptop, and get some work done. You’re making more efficient use of your time, because you’re choosing moments or contexts which will fit the best with the activities you’re performing.

So you won’t find yourself, for example, working hard on your laptop while it’s beautiful and sunny outside and you feel like exercise. Or you won’t find yourself trying to walk the dog when it’s rainy and cold outside.

So that’s the “modular schedule”. Give it a try!

PS. It will be interesting to see if software tools come out in the future, that facilitate more flexible modes of arranging time. But if you internalise this technique, add it to your mental toolbox, it can be pretty easy to start automatically making certain activities more modular, without even needing to refer to a physical or digital calendar.