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.


How do you manage work-place stress? One technique I have found helpful is ‘expanding the problem’.


Do you ever find yourself, at work, feeling stressed out, tense, a pit in your stomach, anxious and concerned, tired out? Work-related stress seems to be a common theme in today’s workforce, and it’s something I’ve faced myself.

Here’s an example of one way this can happen:

Suppose you have to deliver a report. You feel motivated, pumped. You’re going to focus on your goal and get the job done. Now the first step is to talk to Judy and then Mike, who have crucial information you need. But it turns out that Judy is on leave. So you go and talk to her manager, Beth, and Beth tells you that she can give you part of the information you need from Judy, but for the rest, you’ll need to get off Joe, in another department. So you go and talk to Joe and he emails you a link. But when you try it, it turns out to be password protected! So to get it unlocked, you need to talk to Jim in IT. All of a sudden, this initially straight-forward task of making a report has grown into a complex maze of people and information. Your to-do list is stacking up with items and you get to the end of the day, not having “completed” even a part of the report.


You feel perhaps a bit agitated, restless, stressed our, or maybe tired or worn out or mildly depressed. You feel like you got nothing done. And that’s not a nice feeling!

This kind of stress/depression can occur even with relatively solitary activities, such as design or engineering. Nay, especially in those activities! Say you’re in the midst of a coding problem, you’ve been Google-ing for a solution, and you find something that almost works but not quite, and you go for a whole day and not really “finish” anything.

What can we do, constructively, about dealing with these situations?

I’ve found that the problem often is being too focused on the end-result, on the solution that I’m seeking. And because of that, I’m judging my progress (and perhaps myself) whenever I fail to meet that result. And by the end of the day, those failures and judgements have accumulated, and I feel a burden of, guilt, debt, etc.

So one mindfulness-inspired practice I have been trying is that of expanding the problem. Imagine the problem as a funnel, very wide at the top and narrow at the bottom. If you try to force lots of material through at once, it will inevitably be blocked by the narrowest part of the funnel. But if you were to widen the funnel – convert it to a pipe – then all the material could move through at the same speed, without blockage.

To apply this to your work mindset: you’re putting all your focus and energy on the wide part of the funnel – the solution. But the process of achieving the solution, the narrow part, is consuming your effort. So you’re trying to force a lot of effort through a very narrow space. But what if you were to mentally expand your work process. Giving it more attention and energy, and making it feel larger in your mind.

So for example, say you have to talk to Judy, and then go and speak to Jim in IT about getting the password, you can see that as part of your journey toward your solution. And it counts as work, and in fact, counts as a success and an achievement.

So, as you look at your ‘to do’ list, perhaps you see a line like this:

• Finish report

Scrub it out! And, instead, write:

• Speak with Jim in IT
• Email Jim password request

And before the end of the day, you can have those two ticked off!

Speak with Jim in IT
Email Jim password request

Notice that now you’re re-focusing on the actions and tasks you’re performing throughout the day, in order to get the result, and not focusing directly on the result.

And you’re expanding the problem-space. Perhaps you identify a whole network of people who you need to interact with, to get the job done. And then you discover efficiencies – ways you can shortcut the process or get extra value out of it, e.g. getting to meet people and learn about the organisation in the process. So, you might not have delivered the report by the end of the day, but you did learn who Jim was, and established a rapport with him, which could serve you well in the future.

By focusing on the problem, you achieve small incremental results on the way to achieving your big result. And you can leave work at the end of the day with a feeling of success and accomplishment. You can close that day off, get a good night’s sleep and come in the next morning with the energy and motivation to keep going.

Additionally, if you’re going through many tedious steps – a process – in order to achieve an outcome, chances are your work is, by nature, complex. Chances are that this complexity will re-appear at another time. So the learning and knowledge you gain from working through this complex process, if you hang on to it, can help you work through other complex processes in the future.

That’s the technique in a nutshell. Expand the problem, give the problem space. Perhaps try visualising it, through writing, drawing, diagramming, etc. Give yourself time and focus on each action/task, each step of the way, and let the solution come when it’s ready.