The Lost Art of Isolated Thinking

by Scott - 1 Comment

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Hurricane Sandy has been a pretty thought provoking experience. Some of things that have occupied my mind over the past 2 weeks:

  • I’m so incredibly fortunate that family, friends, and colleagues are safe.
  • We are not in control, no matter how hard we try to be.
  • Times of desperation bring out the best in some people. They also bring out the worst in others.

Amidst the power outages and abandonment of common conveniences, I was reminded of a rampant epidemic amongst our generation: many of us hate isolated, directive thinking. In this instance, I’m referring to dedicating time to just think about something without the presence of external stimuli like media, work, or the vortex of distraction commonly known as the Iphone.

We’re so incredibly addicted to busyness and the perceived value creation afforded by the availability external stimuli, that we’re not sure what to do without them.There’s no question that these things can contribute to powerful insights and ideas. The difference is they’re reactive vs. focused.

Do we opt for external stimuli because they provide a lower barrier to perceived value creation, thus making us feel productive? Or perhaps it’s because the consequences of engaging with these vs. isolated thinking are a bit different. Maybe both?

What do the following questions have in common?

  • If I had unlimited money, what would I do to add the most value to my business?
  • How can I be a better son, brother, and friend?
  • What are the three most important habits I could form in the next year that would propel me towards my goals?
  • What inconveniences do I routinely experience that I wish there was a solution for?
The thoughts instigated by these questions come with consequences that breed work. The return on our time spent thinking is often additional and more challenging work. Compare this to the payoff of checking your email or engaging with some other external stimuli. It’s a very different type of progress. One makes you feel like you’re walking forward. The other requires you to put on a 20 lb rucksack and maybe even change your direction. Considering we typically opt for the path of least resistance, we’ll likely choose the type of progress that affords us immediate gratification instead of one which yields more work…even when we get the sense that one might have better long term implications.


The ironic thing is that we’ll likely do more work to achieve the same goal when we don’t practice isolated, directed thinking. It’s the classic working hard vs. working smart (and hard). Isolated thinking helps us recalibrate and ideally find a straighter path to not only acheiving our goals, but also being the person we want to be. This is why I’m a huge advocate of this seemingly lost art.

Here are some things you can do to encourage the practice of isolated thinking:

  • Schedule it. I like to do it at 6am once a week
  • Have a digital detox once a month (no phone, computer, TV).
  • Turn your phone on airplane mode when you don’t need it.
  • Get in the habit of establishing post-mortems around any important experience. What did you learn?
  • Practice and record a daily reflection 5 minutes a day.
  • Write without an explicit purpose. Morning pages is an example of this.

Next time you commute to work, try ditching your kindle or podcasts. Instead, write down one topic or question you want to think about and just meditate on it. If you don’t mind strapping on the ruck sack afterwards, this just may be a much better use of your time.


If you enjoyed this post, you might also like these from the archives:

How to Be A Better Thinker

I’m Reading 850 Books Part One and Part Two

The War on Mobile Stimulation

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