Earlier this week, inspired by Bill Gates’ legendary Think Weeks, I took two days off work in order to sit around and think. I called them “Think Days.” Clever, huh?

The goal of Think Days is to spend uninterrupted time thinking deeply about the big, important questions in our lives—the stuff we just don’t have time to ponder on an everyday basis. Before taking my own Think Days, I was concerned this lofty idea might turn out to be a waste of two vacation days, but the experience was both highly productive and relaxing. It left me with valuable insights, and I highly recommend it.

Speaking of which, below are some basic instructions for taking your own Think Days (based on my successful experience).

Planning your Think Days

Planning my Think Days was easier than I anticipated. Here are the steps I followed.

1. Block off some time

I was sorely tempted to take a whole week off work for a Gatesian “Think Week,” but I compromised, hoping two days was enough. It was the perfect length of time.

I strongly recommend taking at least two Think Days. If you can’t spare two days off work, consider using one work day and one weekend day for your Think Days: Friday-Saturday or Sunday-Monday. While a single Think Day is surely better than nothing, I found that a good night’s sleep gave me well-needed perspective on my ideas from Day 1 and helped me feel more committed to them.

2. Pick your spot

You’re going to spend much of two days deep in thought, so it pays to think carefully about where you’ll spend this time. What locations make self-reflection easy for you?

The choices are endless—a library, a state park, a quiet cafe—but choose a spot that will allow you to think deeply with minimal interruption. A little isolation is a good thing, and though you don’t need a cabin in the woods, you may wish to turn off your wifi.

I spent most of Day 1 at home, working at my desk and in the garden. On Day 2, wanting a change of scenery, I drove to Columbia, MO (on the recommendation of a blog reader). There, I worked in coffee shops and the University of Missouri’s main library. Both days were successful, but it seemed that driving 90 minutes and leaving my usual surroundings helped me squeeze even more value from Day 2. I thought, “I’ve come all this way—I better get some results!”

3. Gather your material

You’re going to be asking and answering big questions about your life, so past records will be helpful. If you’ve been keeping a journal (as I strongly recommend), pack old journals. Old calendars may prove useful, too. Anything that helps you answer the question “How is my life going?” is worth bringing along.

At this point, you’re ready to embark! If you’re taking two Think Days, I recommend dedicating Day 1 to reflection and Day 2 to implementation. There’s only one rule: no tasks allowed. It can be tempting to use this time to catch up on work, but resist! Plenty of your time is already spent doing—Think Days are strictly for thinking.

Here’s Day 1.

Think Day 1: Reflection

On Day 1, your job is to read, think, and write.

Read your old journals. As you do, start a new entry in your current journal: what 3-5 issues come up most in your old entries? Are there any problems you’ve been struggling with for months, or even years? Have you made remarkable progress in certain areas? If you don’t have journals to reference, substitute old calendars, photos, or even social media status updates.

Think about the future. Make a list of big-picture ideas that interest you, even if most of them seem wildly unrealistic.

Write about your findings so far. What themes are emerging? If you’re stuck, try answering questions like these:1

  • “What’s going well in my life?”
  • “What am I proud of?”
  • “What am I not doing that would be easy to do?”
  • “What’s missing from my life?”
  • “Are my current habits taking me where I want to go, or am I kidding myself?”
  • “20, 30, 40 years from now, what will I wish I had been doing today that I’m not?”
  • “What current opportunities might I like to explore?
  • “Who am I around, what are they doing to me, and is that okay?”

You don’t have to answer these exact questions—they’re just examples to get you started. However you do it, put your life under a microscope and write down what you see.

By the end of Day 1, you’ll be surprised at the patterns you’ve unearthed in your behavior. Before calling it a day, strive to identify the top 2-3 changes you’d like to make. These will be the focus of Day 2.

Think Day 2: Implementation

On Day 2, your job is to turn yesterday’s reflection into future results.

Look at the top 2-3 life changes you identified yesterday. How do you feel about them today—do they still seem like top priorities? If so, great! If not, that’s okay. Revisit yesterday’s work, do some more reflection, and choose your top 2-3 priorities.

For each priority, design an implementation plan. Write step-by-step instructions for yourself, and be as concrete as possible. This is easy to describe, but it took me most of the day. If you’re curious, I identified one overarching theme (the subject of my next post) and three specific priorities:

  1. Spend six months as a non-drinker. The first thing I noticed in reviewing my old journal entries was how many of them mentioned a desire to cut back on craft beer. I’ve cut back repeatedly over the years, but within a few months, my alcohol usage has always crept back up to the same level: too much. I’m fed up and ready to try a different lifestyle, so starting tomorrow (May 19, 2018) I’m going to become a non-drinker for six months.
  2. Help others on a weekly basis. I value helping others, yet I only do it sporadically. If I’m being truthful, I’m too focused on myself. Inspired by Adam Grant’s systematic approach to helping others, I will start incorporating into my weekly plan three significant things I can do for others.
  3. Prioritize physical health. I’m not exercising, yet I value my long-term health. These statements are incompatible. I only exercise when I’m working toward a physical goal, so this Sunday, I’ll start training for a 10K I’m running in July.

I found my Think Days experience incredibly valuable, and I plan to continue this practice twice a year—I’ve already scheduled November Think Days. I hope you’ll take Think Days of your own. If you do, please let me know how things go for you and share your suggestions for improving the process!

  1. Hat tip to the inimitable Jim Rohn for some of these questions. ↩︎