Can You Be A Deep Thinker While Being Insanely Busy?

I am completely wiped out. It’s noon on Saturday in Colorado. I just had five days in a row of 18 hour days. I started the week in San Francisco and flew back home on Friday night from New York (with a red eye in between). It was awesome, but exhausting.

In addition to all the work, there was plenty of ambient emotion last week including some around mortality (Steve Jobs died and a close friend’s father died). In between everything, I spent a had a lot of meals with people I haven’t seen in a while, or whom I’m really close to. On top of that, there were hundreds of emails a day, plenty of telephone calls, and lots of random stuff to deal with. And plenty of running, coming off a weekend of back to back long runs (14 miles on Saturday, 16 miles on Sunday). And the Imperial March rang on my phone several times a day when Amy called, which always gave me a nice positive emotional charge.

I slept 12 hours last night. Amy made me a great breakfast and I’ve spent an hour catching up on unread emails from yesterday. But I’m just fried. And I’m going to crawl back into bed for a nap, go to a movie this afternoon, and then have a quiet dinner with Amy somewhere.

When I reflect on last week, I consciously spent very little time thinking deeply about anything. My runs were mostly mental garbage collection times, I slept on the airplanes, and I was in the moment the rest of the time dealing with the present. Sure, some of the discussions were longer term, strategic type things, but all the thought processes were surface level vs. deep discovery.

I’m working on a book called Entrepreneurial Communities. It’ll be done by the end of the year. I’ll likely self-publish this one as I don’t perceive any benefit to having a publisher now that I’ve done two books the traditional way. I also don’t want to introduce an additional six months into the writing to publishing cycle. I spent exactly zero time working on the book last week, although I had no expectation that I would.

But when I think about what I learned this week, and what I talked about, plenty of it pertained to the book. While I consciously spent very little time thinking about entrepreneurial communities, I unconsciously spent a lot of time thinking about it. And while my surface level discussions about longer term things didn’t impress me as deep thinking, by talking out loud about complicated issues I continued to modify the way I talk and think about them.

This is a style of mine. While I don’t “think out loud” like some do, I “refine my thought process” by talking about – and doing – things around the topics that I think deeply about. The development, creation, and sustaining of entrepreneurial communities is one of those topics that I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about lately, and anyone who knows what I spent my time on knows that many of the things I work on pertain directly to the activities around these, rather than just the thoughts around these.

By being insanely busy in areas that I think (and care) deeply about, I’m actually engaged in an “active deep thinking” rather than a passive deep thinking. It’s easy to end a week like the last one (which is a pretty typical week for me) with the reaction of “wow – that was intense and insane, but I didn’t really have any time to think about what I wanted to think about.” That’s wrong – I spent the entire week actively thinking, which makes my ability to deeply think about topics I care about even more powerful and effective.

I’m sure there is some philosophy, or psychology, about how a human links passive and active around the formation of thoughts, ideas, and theories. I’m not going to think deeply about that, especially since it’s meta in the context of this post, but I’m certain that the answer the my question that I posed in the title is a resounding yes when you combine active and passive thinking.

  • Hi Brad. ¬†There surely aren’t easy answers here. I’m sure you’re right (resounding yes) in some ways for some people. Others can’t think deeply about issues no matter what, etc.

    It’s useful (to me) to classify the kinds of things that one might be thinking deeply about. In your example case above, you’re immersed in the practical side of what it is you’re also thinking deeply about, and it works. The long/deep experience is a big plus for the long/deep thinking. Same goes for me, just for example, in thinking about the VC world while trying to raise money.

    OTOH, there are plenty of things it’s extremely hard to think deeply about if you’re extremely busy. Difficult programming problems, learning advanced mathematics, understanding how OAuth works ūüôā

    Hence my initial comment that I don’t think there’s a simple answer. You’re lucky to be living the thing you’re also driven to contemplate deeply. That’s always a wonderful phase, no matter the subject.

    • Great observation about many problems that you can’t think deeply about if you are incredibly busy. I strongly agree.

  • Amazingly relevant post for me this Sat morning.¬† Always on/parallel processing the now of our market, our business, our team — while at the same time thinking/planning about the next phase of our growth. It’s draining and exhilirating.¬† It’s what I love and what I do.¬† Thanks for sharing.¬†

  • Or, in other words – practice is the best “thinking” – did I get this right?

  • i think both can be important. ¬†you also had a pretty decent break and disconnected for a while which makes all the difference.

    • Yup! The pace I just had is not sustainable over a long period of time.

  • I’d rather move ‘too fast’ than be ‘slow enough’ to reach ‘perfection’, because perfection is unattainable. I learned this the hard way. You can only think through problems to the extent of which you have gained experience and knowledge. For thinking deeply, there’s¬†eventually¬†diminishing returns, and you must take some sort of action to learn more. It’s all about executing ‘good enough’ in order to make progress everyday. Be humble enough to know what you don’t know, and try your best at what you can do. Don’t stop moving in order to perfect.¬†Momentum¬†is critical.
    Having lived in for the past two years,¬†I’ve also contemplated entrepreneurial communities. Now that I’m leading the organization, the value of action is even more apparent. Everyone in etower loves the place dearly (for good reason), but very few know when to stop talking/thinking and take more action. It’s all about execution, and its the entrepreneurs responsibility to find the best way(s). There’s a time and place for deep thinking, but constant action is¬†necessary¬†for effective deep thinking– without it, you won’t make many productive insights.¬†

    • looks awesome – I’d never hear of it before. I’d love to come visit some time when I’m in Boston.

  • While the¬†occasional¬†long day or string of days is not uncommon for folks like us (my longest awake-for-business periods were 44 hours + 43 hours – in the same 8 day period in 2000), you gotta find the balance.

    If you *can* consistently do 18 hr days, they’re productive + don’t wipe you out, go for it. ¬†But (as you essentially point out above), it almost certainly isn’t sustainable.

    Typical for me these days is 15-16, with travel days being 17-18. ¬†If I didn’t work out + take frequent ¬†breaks (Carmel in 2 weeks), I’d be a mess.

    • I can handle 5 days in a row that are 18 hour days. It’s not 18 hours of “work” since I run and eat and sleep on planes, but I measure the day length by hours slept at night. But more than 5 craters me.

  • Anonymous

    Found something very special in the post, dealing right now with the thinking process, but more so execution. Seems you doing both brilliantly. Not much of an insightful comment from me but have to say that I loved this post.

    Leaving me with added excitement knowing you will have another book this year. Do more faster & Venture deals are two book I treasure, a third is getting me extremely excited.

    Thanks for this great news, had no idea there was another you had ready to come out soon.

    This week in techstars is excellent, thanks.

    • Glad the post, books, TWITechStars, etc are useful!

      • Anonymous

        They 100% and the blog too ofcourse!

  • On entrepreneurial communities, I say Godspeed!¬†Paul Graham: Wrong About NYC¬†

    • Define insanely busy. The answer is no if you were insanely, but yes if you were sanely busy. I think you are saying you were sanely busy.¬†

      • I suppose. Maybe I chose the wrong adverb and should have used “intensely” instead.

  • thansk for sharing!¬†

  • Munly Leong

    This is exactly why its a tough call between Orlando or Santa Monica (or some other metro, say Chicago) for me for startup location. I suspect the reasons why I may end up preferring Orlando are the same for you being in Boulder, less noise.. but also less action. 

    • Come to Santa Monica. ¬†We’d love to have you. ¬†)

  • Would love to contribute in any way possible to the Entrepreneurial Communities book, would be great to share the story of [email protected] and how it’s escalating NYU to the level of MIT & Stanford in entrepreneurship.

    • Awesome. I’ll send you an email.

      • Brad,

        I think there might be some interesting China perspectives here as well with regards to the reach into Asia and similarities and differences of startups here.

        If it’s of value, let me know and I’d be glad to contribute.


        • Definitely. Feel free to drop me a note via email – let’s explore a few things that way.

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  • The thoughts can be processes any time indeed!

  • Nice post about #thinking. We can think about a different topic even when we are most busy. #SubconsciousMind¬†

  • I guess our subconscious mind is always at work – whether busy or not.¬†

    However, while we chew on problems when being insanely busy. I think prioritization and perspective comes to us when we are not. Only then can we take a step back! 

  • Some people hit the lotto by having smart or successful parents, others hit the lottery by having bosses who aren’t too busy to mentor them.

    It’s not just your time to reflect, it’s also about your ability to watch others, offer help and have the time and patience to do both.

  • This is a great summary of my life the past 15+ years and the way I arrive at most conclusion on what I do (hard to describe, I am an analyst by office – but a vision-strategy guy by passion). ¬†

    The balance between doing and deep-thinking is never reached (you can’t allocate 2 hours to deep thinking and 6 to doing – a lot of people expect that when they employ someone) as the deep-thinking does not happen on command – but most importantly, the active thinking (as you greatly call it – thanks for the passive and active model, very interesting) is what drives the actionability (not sure if that is a word, but it works) of the deep thoughts. ¬†In other words, the rubber-meets-the-road moment that gives us the corrections to the deep thinking that make it possible to do so.

    Very interesting, thanks for posting.

  • I’ve been here many times. I call it the low tide of the thinking process. The ocean (your mind) is still churning and high tide is right around the corner.

    Also, the fact that you wrote this post means you are rounding towards a high tide.

  • Anonymous

    Great discussion on this thread.

    Yes, deep thinking cannot be switched on on-demand, but it is ongoing at deeper levels of consciousness – to evidence itself in that ‘Aha’ moment. That moment did not appear at random. It was a result of being busy with other activities in that realm.

  • Brad – Dean Lyons at Haas has¬†instituted¬†4 guiding principles – one of which is “Students Always” – I was asked to give a talk on Students Always a couple weeks ago. ¬†In build up to the talk I put out a survey to the community to which I was speaking – my underlying question was essentially “do people have the room in their lives to step back and really think about stuff?” – sort of a¬†feasibility¬†assessment for being Students Always. ¬†I posted the results on my blog – you might get a kick out of them:¬†

  • Jenny Lawton

    I’ve just had one of the least insanely busy weeks of my life and … and as much as I wanted to, I wasn’t able to do any deep thinking. I do my best work when there’s a few things to occupy my mind – and different types of things. Kid stuff, work stuff, exercise stuff, life stuff … stuff that I get to sift through and deep dive on in pieces until I end up where I need to be. I love the thought that you were sanely vs insanely busy because I remember when you were insanely busy and you never got to passive/active deep thinking in that mode. Lucky to have the mountains and Amy to recharge with – hopefully next week is more evenly paced.

  • At least for me, it’s not so much about being able to think as it is about being able to write. I definitely find that the busier I am, the more I am thinking – the more activity the better. But the frustration comes in never feeling like I then have enough time to compose those thoughts and put them in writing.

  • Great post! ¬†Indeed, the way the mind works is fascinating. ¬†One beautiful way of describing deep thought put it as like “getting into a hot deep bath”. ¬†Maybe it takes a few minutes to get the Alpha Waves flowing (needed for the big ideas ”¬†Visions, powerful ideas, mindless creation of the incredible.”¬† ¬†Having said that, there’s nothing like “submitting” a problem to the brain, cranking away on something completely different, and then being pleasantly surprised when the brain “returns” the answer the moment you take a pause from the frenetic. ¬†All very cool….

  • Krluna

    Thanks for the post Brad.  Regardless, not having enough time to passively think about the things you love most because you are already so busy doing what it is you love to do sounds like a great problem to have and I am hoping to be there someday.  Thanks for this.  

  • My last week sounded much like yours – Dallas on Monday, Chicago on Tuesday, NYC on Wed/Thurs, SF on Friday, and then hosting a fun but logistical nightmare of a bachelor party all day on Saturday. Managed one run in Central Park on Wed but other than that all airplanes/hotels/meetings. I’m winding down responsibilities at my current company while putting the pieces in motion for a new company, so “insanely busy” sounds like an accurate description, but I’m finding myself so excited about the vision for the new company that it keeps me up at night even after an 18hr day.

    While splitting time between old job and new company, I’ve noticed something interesting that relates very much to passive vs active thinking that you mentioned.¬†The need to fulfill responsibilities at the old company leaves me with only an hour or two per day to really sit down and work on the new company. This means that whatever question/issue is on my mind for the new company gets to marinate for 12-24 hours before I have a chance to sit down and pick a solution/answer/plan of action.¬†

    I’m finding that when I do finally get to sit down for that 1-2 hours of dedicated work, all the passive thinking I’ve done since my last work session has brought clarity, and the answers tend to be there in my mind, ready and waiting for me to act on them.

    My gut feeling is that I’m arriving at better solutions than I would be if I had tried to force a solution the moment I identified the problem (as would be tempting if I wasn’t needing to split time between old job and new company). I think the reason for this is that the 12-24 hours of passive thinking creates a context where there isn’t as much temptation to take the first solution that comes to mind and run with it. The time between active work sessions creates the time and space to evaluate different options, try them on to see how they feel (mentally, verbally in casual conversation, or with some back of the napkin sketches in between other things), discard the weaker ones, and identify the strongest.

    This experience brought back memories from my time in design school at UC Davis, where we were often required to do a minimum number of variations on an idea for exactly this reason – inexperienced designers often think that an early/first idea is a great solution, and they can’t imagine anything better, so why keep working on alternatives? Sometimes the first idea does turn out to be the strongest, but rarely is the case. You never know if you’ll come up with a better solution unless you set aside the first idea and go through the exercise of exploring other ideas.¬†

    This concept is so simple but so easily forgotten in the urgency-driven mindset of a startup.¬†I’m trying to remind myself of this as I start working on the new company full time in next few weeks. If there’s a decision to be made or problem that I’m struggling with, I’m trying to let it marinate for just a little while so I can resist picking the first solution in favor of picking the best solution.

    • Dan Kelley

      Thank you for sharing this… I now dont feel so guilty for the time I have been unable to spend on my own business…. but this makes perfect sense…. when I do get the time to work on it…. I know exactly what needs to be done. Thank the good Lord that what I thought was my inability to devote the required commitment to my family and business is actually a “process” that is probably helping my business even more! ūüôā

  • Seems like there’s a lot of content on your blog that would also work as a book. You even have the RSS feed for it:

  • Todd Nagel

    Brad great thoughts, best of luck on the book. ¬†I expect differences exist among people based on how they function. I think the¬†description¬†of your week is a good example of automaticity. You are able to think deeply about the concepts and strategy that you know well. Your knowledge and experience even allow you to think “outside the bun” so to speak. ¬†Your post however also brings to mind the debate I recall hearing while I was growing up “quality time vs quantity time”. ¬†That social¬†experiment¬†would indicate both are necessary.¬†
    Todd N

  • Rob Jaudon

    Inspiring and telling post. 
    Thank you.

  • Fred talked about this back in July, he used an OS metaphor to describe his passive thinking as sort of a background process.

    Different people connect the dots in different ways, my brain seems to work more like Fred’s.

    “Subconscious Information Processing”

  • Had a similar experience this weekend at a in Portland, OR. Much of the topic are was on communities and what makes effective communities in health care, open source, open knowledge as well as the platforms that enable them.

    Fortunately for you and your book, when you are actively collaborating, you are doing the work of thinking about communities and what makes them effective. Rather than writing the software of the system, you are enabling the rules at a layer below the emergent behavior of the system — right into the system. So it’s as if deep thinking doesn’t need to happen on the meta layer, it’s happening on the layer on which the emergent meta layer is later visualized. You’re living it. But perhaps that’s unique to the topic of communities and social systems? I’m not sure it’s true with deep thinking about other topics.

    • I’ve definitely organized my life so that I’m working on the things I’m thinking deeply about. It’s a philosophical approach – my running is another example of that as it’s a science experiment (e.g. seeing if I could run a marathon two weekends in a row while living my normal life – which I just did). I get that there are some things that make this approach hard, but I encourage everyone to try it this way.

      • Hate to tell you but you don’t live a ‘normal life.’

        • I am very aware of that.

        • I am very aware of that.

      • Hate to tell you but you don’t live a ‘normal life.’

      • It’s great if you can get the work. ūüôā

        I think I read something about “everything’s practice”. If you practice, you become.

        Good way to be. Been working toward that, following passion without expectation. It does seem to feed on itself and a lot of the positives seem to happen by way of attracting the right people…

      • It’s great if you can get the work. ūüôā

        I think I read something about “everything’s practice”. If you practice, you become.

        Good way to be. Been working toward that, following passion without expectation. It does seem to feed on itself and a lot of the positives seem to happen by way of attracting the right people…

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