I have vivid memories of school when my father, a legendary journalist, would check us if he would find us studying nonstop and urge us to step out to play badminton or go cycling. If he found us immersed in books at midnight eight hours before an examination, he would switch off the lights. We were told not to overload our brain with information lest it reach the Plimsoll line.
We know that The Plimsoll line is a reference mark located on a ship’s hull that indicates the maximum depth to which the vessel may be safely immersed when loaded with cargo. The example was to ensure that we did not strain our brain with gluttonous curiosity and last-minute reading. Instead, he advised us to appear in the examination with a fresh mind.
Habits of highly successful people continue to inspire generations and 65-year-old American business magnate Bill Gates is no exception.
What exactly is Bill Gates ‘Think Week’?
In my understanding, Bill Gates concept of Think week is also aimed at giving the brain much needed rest for optimum results. Gates takes a self-proclaimed ‘Think Week’ break twice a year. During this time, he spends time in solitude in a cabin in the forest away. By keeping himself away from the distractions of daily life, Gates is able to sit down and think. Gates has said that it is during the “think week” that he comes up with his best ideas.
The Think Week is worth exploring as it can be a game changer for productivity and career focus. The health benefits of having a cabin in the woods are enormous. According to studies, tree therapy enables individuals to inhale negatively charged ions which are believed to boost serotonin, alleviate depression, reduce stress, get much needed doses of Vitamin D away from the comfort of air-conditioned offices, enhance day time energy levels and prevent burnout. Another study found that hikers who disconnected from technology and took a break in natural surroundings for four days were able to improve creative thinking and problem solving by a full 50 per cent.
I would literally take boxes out to a beach place and sit there for a week reading them day and night and scribbling on them to put it entirely online.
- Bill Gates
It is said that Gates began taking think weeks in the 1980s with quiet visits to his grandmother’s house.
Gates, a Harvard dropout with an IQ test score of 160, became the richest person in the world in 1995 at the age of 31.
As the boss of Microsoft, Bill Gates would escape for a week to a secret cabin somewhere in a cedar forest in the Pacific northwest. He would arrive by helicopter or seaplane. During this week, he would read papers written by Microsoft employees presenting ideas for new innovations or potential investments. He read as many papers as possible, sometimes doing so 18 hours a day, staying up until the wee hours of the morning, according to The Wall Street Journal.
″…I would literally take boxes out to a beach place and sit there for a week reading them day and night and scribbling on them to put it entirely online,” Gates said in a 2008 video of Microsoft’s CEO summit.
Visitors were not allowed to Gates’ cabin during Think Week. Exceptions were made for anybody delivering two meals a day at the cabin. One year, an exception was made for a Wallstreet Journal reporter who saw the cabin stocked with Diet Orange Crush and Diet Coke.
Work accomplished during one Think Week eventually led Microsoft to launch the Internet Explorer in 1995.
Laura Stack, President and CEO of consulting firm The Productivity Pro, endorses Gates “week in the woods’ idea as “smart’.
She says, “People should have a third place’ that isn’t work or home, where they can find focused time to think and create and clarify their strategic thinking.”
Backers of the Think Week
The Think Week idea has many takers. Canadian writer Chris Bailey who has written extensively on the subject of productivity, has summed up how he benefited by taking a Bill Gates-inspired “Think Week.”
Bailey who has authored two books ‘Hyper focus’ and ‘The Productivity Project’ shared last year in an article titled ‘A life of Productivity’ the gains that he made by spending seven days all by himself in Jamaica. He said, “I learned five key things: the more time we spend keeping up, the less time we spend getting ahead; that we need to strike a balance between reflecting and doing; that stepping back from our daily grind helps us to be grateful of the lives we lead; that our lives need more solitude; and finally, that we all need to take more think breaks, regardless of their length.”
Bailey went on to say that while few of us have the flexibility in our home and work schedules to take a full seven day think week. He suggests ways to bring the values of a think week into our lives. “We can do this by finding more solitude in our lives. The first comes in the form of small blocks of reflection time (waiting in line without your phone, quietly sipping your morning coffee). The second is the extended periods of reflection time where we get to disconnect for the weekend or take a temporary digital detox during a long flight, we need more of both.’’
Harsh Goenka, a fifth-generation entrepreneur from one of India’s best known business families, has hailed the idea of a Think Week. In a tweet, Goenka who is listed as the 77th richest Indian, said, “Twice a year, Bill Gates goes into seclusion to have a “Think Week” with no communication with family, friends and employees. He reads books, comes up with new ideas and works on personal development. A lot of breakthroughs at Microsoft stem from these “Think Weeks”. A good idea!”
It is up to individuals to try the Thinking week concept that Bill Gates has been practising for more than two decades. It is important to block off time for the event well in advance so that meetings and deadlines don’t come in the way. Anybody who wants to try the Thinking Week must know what he wants to accomplish from the think week. It is a good idea to carry along inspirational books, white papers, notebooks and pens, to encourage the flow of ideas. It is important that any individual who tries the Think Week must come back refreshed and recharged.
In his bestseller- Stillness is the key, noted American author Ryan Holiday argues for a break from work. He writes, “Yes, we have important duties- to our country, to our co-workers, to provide for our families. Many of us have talents and gifts that are so extraordinary that we owe it to ourselves and the world to express and fulfil them. But we’re not going to be able to do that if we’re not taking care of ourselves, or if we have stretched ourselves to the breaking point. Man is not a machine. Work will not set you free. It will kill you if you’re not careful.”
People should have a third place’ that isn’t work or home, where they can find focussed time to think and create and clarify their strategic thinking.
- Laura Stack, President and CEO of consulting firm The Productivity Pro
I have distinct memories of reading in my college textbook an essay titled ‘On doing nothing’ by British author, novelist and broadcaster J.B. Priestley. The title appealed to me not because I found literary justification in being “delightfully lazy” but because his lucid humorous prose actually made a lot of sense. “All the evil in this world is brought by persons who are always up and doing, but do not know when they ought to be up nor what they ought to be doing,” wrote Priestley.
I now hear my friends talking of taking a break from super addictive social media platforms and mobile phones. They call it detoxification from the cacophony of disturbances. We are leading stressful lives. The Corona pandemic has posed fresh challenges. Lockdowns and restrictions on mobility have made us bigger addicts of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. For a long time now, doctors have been warning against lifestyle diseases caused by sedentary lifestyles. Most people rush to the office in their private vehicles, take the elevator, use remote keys to open car doors, order junk food using mobile Apps, work on their laptops and are addicted to checking messages on several media platforms. By the time they drive through patience testing traffic and reach home, it is time for dinner. Add to this the job pressures and domestic obligations which hardly leave most office goers any time for physical activity. A journalist friend working with a foreign newspaper which has no culture of holidays tells me that the only time she gets to introspect or reflect on her life is when she travels.
It is important for us to realise that our health is more precious than our job and managers in workplaces must not expect workers to work like robots without legitimate breaks.
Mark Zuckerberg, internet entrepreneur and co-founder of Facebook, also takes regular think week to invigorate thinking. Many super successful people including top entrepreneurs and investors have begun to swear by a regular week off the grid.
Blaise Pascal, 17th century mathematician and philosopher said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
One has heard of weekend getaways. These are necessary to reflect. Retreats after summits of world leaders are not uncommon in diplomatic planning.
In an article titled ‘Benefit from a Think Week, Just like a CEO’ Hongkong based journalist Michele Koh Morollo, writes that Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Steve Jobs popularized the term “Think Week’. She noted, “But something changed after I embarked on my first Think Week. By physically extracting myself from life-as-I-knew it and from the distractions of my hyper-connected urban environment (I live in Hong Kong, a city that I’ve heard described by Manhattanites as “New York on steroids”), I began to see which goals and projects best aligned with my values, interests, wants and needs, and found the momentum needed to move forward with them.’’
Michelle is convinced that anybody who wants to live with more purpose can benefit from a think week. She however warns that persons trying the think week must be prepared to face challenges. “Think Weeks require that you get comfortable with your own company and strike the right balance between doing and being. You might feel lonesome at times.”
She also says that during the think week, she resisted an overpowering urge to play ‘Candy Crush’ or watch “Old Saturday Night live’’
YouTube clips. Instead, she would do some stretches, ten sun salutations or go for a brisk walk around her cottage.
Michelle has drawn attention to the American essayist Henry David Thoreau who published Walden: Or, Life in the Woods in 1864. He chronicled his time away from civilization, living deliberately, and fronting “only the essential facts of life” in a self-built cabin near Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. “I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear;” wrote Thoreau.
She says when people return from Think Week, they know where to focus their energies.