How to Refocus With Think Weeks

How to Refocus With Think Weeks

How to Refocus With Think Weeks

Published on Oct 13, 2020, by Jan Kuzel

When I learned about the concept of Think Week, I thought it could be a great tool in the arsenal of any strategic thinker and solution to my work-life balance challenges.

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Twice a year, Bill Gates would take a week-long retreat in seclusion to read and think. He would take books and other printed documents to do a deep dive into a specific topic, that he otherwise wouldn't be able to do, as a busy CEO of Microsoft. He calls them Think Weeks and continues to do them to the present day. Some of his most innovative ideas came from them. The practice has also been passed on to dozens of Microsoft executives.

Why Do a Think Week

Historically I made a living via freelancing and external roles in SaaS startups. Only since I was almost 30, I transitioned into a full-time roler for the first time, recently a leader role on top of that. My distinction between my personal life and work life has always been hazy. I always refused to do things I didn't enjoy or things with no value or purpose, so all that I do now, I actually like. In my work, we have a "take as much vacation as you want" policy and for someone whose brain was built on "doing whatever I like or see value in", a vacation was always a bizarre concept for me. Why would I take a break from something I like to be doing. I once tried to do what everyone else does, book a week at a beach resort in Greece. Needles to say, it wasn't very satisfying to me. What I do enjoy though, are my weekends. Besides doing home chores and some fun stuff, I also always find time to visit a coffee shop and read a book, listen to a podcast, check out forums like Hacker News, do some personal planning, or think about our company's challenges. Free of the daily work responsibilities and the pressure to do something meaningful, I would often come up with my best strategic ideas during these weekends. I would also have fun doing this. So, what if I used my vacation time to do an extended weekend. Free of chores and free of distracting entertainment. Just learning and thinking. That's what Think Week essentially is. Taking that pure joy of learning something really exciting from an interesting book and stretching that out.

Try to choose a truly isolated and quiet location to avoid distractions (picture shows my family's house garden)
Try to choose a truly isolated and quiet location to avoid distractions (picture shows my family's house garden)

What to Expect

I thought that I will do a massive deep dive into our company's strategy. That I will revisit every comprehensive book, e-book, video course, and article on Growth of a SaaS company. On top of that, I would also read some books on personal productivity and plan all my personal goals. My list of materials was big, I expected that every day I would get lost in studying for 12+ hours. I thought I would come out at the end of the week enlightened like Hugh Jackman in The Fountain.

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Yea, that didn't really happened 😏 ...

What to Really Expect

A week is surprisingly short! One would think that being free of the work responsibilities and personal distractions will give you all the time in the world, but that's not really the case! At least in terms of the technical volume of materials I wanted to process, I was completely mistaken. This by made me think really hard about prioritization, week is really not that much time. There is only so much person will be able to do both professionally and personally in a week, month and year in their life as a whole. This experience changed my perspective on time a lot. I dived mostly into one video course and one book. What happened, is that I would consume a part and then take some time to process the ideas and change my future plans based on them. It was ridiculous to expect to chew through multiple books. If I was just reading, I might have been able to do that, but there's no point in doing that if you don't drive some real change from it. I also took pauses for additional activities. I collected walnuts, raspberries and apples in the garden. I took a walk in a forest. I took my motorcycle for a ride. I relaxed with a TV show and so on ... .

Each morning I meditated in the cold garden
Each morning I meditated in the cold garden
I'd get cozy and watch the video course on TV
I'd get cozy and watch the video course on TV

Biggest Benefits

I immediately slowed down and achieved an unusually high relaxation state that I was able to hold for most of the week. I think waking up early, meditating, and spending time in nature helped a lot. Things I've already read before now had different meaning. I realized that I misunderstood some parts in the past. This made me think about how many cognitive mistakes must burned-out people do. The compound impact is huge as one misunderstanding can shift everything upside down. Most importantly my company plans and personal plans have changed dramatically as a result of doing the Think Week. My perspectives have changed and I realized things I didn't see before. I got more clarity on my purpose. That's what really matters. A real impact on my work and my life.

Get More Context

I recommend doing a little research, besides just this post, below are some of my favourite sources. The articles are more practical and the videos from vloggers are more about the emotions.

  • Articles (1, 2)
  • YouTube videos (1, 2, 3, 4)
  • Netflix documentary about Bill Gates (1, 2)
  • Cool how-to infographic (1)

How to Prepare

And here are things I personally think you should be aware of to make your Think Week a success.

schedule a week with 100% unavailability to the outside world
book a location in an isolated place in nature (I chose family house with garden in rural town)
plan to have as little distractions as possible (food is taken care of, no chores, etc.)
consider choosing a specific topic to study and think about
make a selection of books to carry, pre-download e-books, audio books or podcasts
plan your routine (mine was to wake up at 7, meditate for 30min in nature, then go read, etc.)
set your rules (it is best to stay offline, but I did allowed myself up to 60 min of internet per day)

Final Notes

I don't completely reject the idea of an entertainment or adventure-oriented vacation (I traveled to Iceland last year), that being said - if the goal is to cool down my stress levels, build up inspiration, and reorient my long-term intentions, then Think Week was the best thing I could have done. If I didn't do it, then I would have taken a different path in both my personal and work life, compounding into different decisions and results. For this reason, it was an absolute success and I will make sure that I will keep repeating it 1-2x a year.

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Jan Kuzel