I still recall my old work calendar. It was nearly all blocked out with tasks to do and meetings to attend. I had learned in my previous job that every time you get an email or new task, you should add the follow-up task to your calendar to make time for it. This meant nothing got dropped and I couldn’t overcommit (something I tend towards).

My calendar was like any other corporate calendar. It was color-coded and there was always work to do. My calendar gave a productive impression. It was surprising that I kept hearing a common critique, “You should share more ideas.” I shared ideas in my 1-1 work with clients and when I taught workshops. But, I kept quiet in staff meetings. I listened to what was being said, took many notes, and then neglected to offer new ideas. I acted like a disengaged employee, and my manager noticed.

I wasn’t disengaged. I enjoyed the work and my clients, it was that I didn’t schedule a time to think or create things to help the company. I was too busy with meetings and follow-up, that I wasn’t investing in the skills that would accelerate my career. It is partly that my previous jobs didn’t pay me to think. They paid me to be somewhere doing something. I was now a knowledge worker, but acting like a doer.

One of the quickest ways to grow your career is to move from being a doer to being a thinker. 

Where do ideas come from?

Some schedulable activities that prompt new ideas are:

  1. Physical exercise
  2. Reflection/research/idleness
  3. Creation time

I blocked these out in my weekly calendar. I added two 45-minute exercise sessions, two 1-hour blocks for reflection/research, and 1 3-hour chunk for creation. This was equivalent to spending one full day on new ideas.

Exercise for Idea Generation

For exercise, I took long walks. I worked in a high-rise building that was connected to other buildings through an underground tunnel. I would walk from one end to another.  Some days it felt like I was mixing exercise with networking because along the way I would run into corporate clients and contacts and have short catch-up talks. Other days I didn’t recognize anyone I saw, I kept on walking in silence, noticing people, and things.

And while you may think a lunch-hour yoga class would do the same thing, walking works. The simple act of going for a walk can help you come up with better ideas

“Four studies demonstrate that walking increases creative ideation.
The effect is not simply due to the increased perceptual stimulation
of moving through an environment, but rather it is due to walking.
Whether one is outdoors or on a treadmill, walking improves the
generation of novel yet appropriate ideas, and the effect even
extends to when people sit down to do their creative work shortly
after.” Oppezzo and Schwartz 

I carried a notebook on these walks to jot down any ideas that came up. Many ideas came. After these walks, I would spend about 15 minutes making notes about ideas and then got back to meetings and my to-do list.

If you work from home and can’t leave the house, try doing this walking meditation. Some people have said doing chores help to bring new ideas. Margaret Atwood uses physical chores to help with brainstorming.

“On a daily basis, she finds that rote chores provide crucial brainstorming time: “I think it induces ideas to do a repetitive activity that is not connected with writing.” Ultimately, writing is an improvisational act, every time. “I have no routine. I have no foolproof anything. There’s nothing foolproof.”” Process

Reflection/Research/Idle time

In my weekly calendar, I added 2 1-hour chunks called RRI. I didn’t always know when I scheduled them whether I would be reflecting on ideas, conducting research, or doing something idle. Keeping this open meant that it was exciting every week. If I had planned which article I would read each week, it would defeat the purpose. Planning this time made me a better researcher. During the week, as I stumbled upon or was given article recommendations, I would save the articles in google keep under a note labeled #toread.

Sometimes I would read articles or books. I didn’t read them passively. Instead of doing a half-assed reading before a meeting, the articles had my full attention. This attention meant I could make new connections and meaningful notes. The notes I made were used that day, or a later time to develop new ideas.

Sometimes I would do self-reflections, like this one. Or I looked at the notes and ideas I had from other days and think about new ways to connect concepts and ideas.

Sometimes I was idle. I would get some tea, play solitaire, and doodle. While this might look like I was unproductive, sometimes doing nothing allowed me to have a break-through idea. The idle time was only an hour.

“When we are busiest, our brains are not necessarily doing very much. Conversely, when we take a break and engage in some apparently mindless pursuit like playing solitaire, walking, or shoveling snow, our problem-solving brains kick into overdrive. We may perceive ourselves as taking a mental break but the problem-solving brain never rests. Indeed, the problem-solving parts of the brain are found to be more active when we daydream.” Barber

Creative time

The third block of time was creating time. This was the time where the ideas I had from walking, researching, reflecting, and being idle turned into something that helped the company. It might be as simple as drafting a short email to our team saying, “I read this article about how sleep affects job-search, here are the highlights.”

Other days, I would edit existing webinars or workshops to improve them based on what I researched on learning theories and adult education.

I came up with new ways to track client interactions. I thought up streamlined ways to do the monthly forecasting. I drafted these into proposals and requested meetings with my co-workers and manager to develop them more.

It was hard in the first few weeks to not feel like I was getting away with something. Getting paid to read felt wrong at first. And then I saw the results of it:

  • I was invited to be part of bigger projects.
  • My manager was praising me for new ideas.
  • I started to be known as the internal resume expert.
  • I loved being at work more.

I was developing my reputation and career. Coming up with new ideas that help your company (and as a bonus, you) means making time for it. If you expect to find 5 hours a week to do this without scheduling it, you’re not taking it seriously. We have to move out of the comfortable rhythm of meetings and follow-up towards nurturing creativity at work. 

“If you feel familiar and you feel comfortable, you’re in mapped territory,” he says. “What’s the use of being in mapped territory?”Process

Your actions

To invest in your career development, open your calendar now, and decide:

  • How much time a week will you schedule for physical exercise.
    • Plot that in your calendar. If possible, set it as a recurring event
  • How much time a week will you commit to doing work-related deep research, reflection, and/or idleness?
    • Plot that in your calendar. If possible, set it as a recurring event
  • How much time a week will you spend connecting ideas and creating?
    • Plot that in your calendar. If possible, set it as a recurring event

Try this for a month and see if it makes you feel happier at work, while also boosting your professional reputation.

And, if you’re a job seeker or student, you can still do this. The creating part could be social media posts or building a business. Do what helps you most.