Schedule a Think Break to level up in your work

Takeaway: There are huge benefits to periodically stepping back from your work to think deeply about what’s important, and invest in your skills. 

Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes, 53s.


Stepping Back

My favorite kind of person to hang out with is someone who constantly reads. People who continuously devour new books—who would almost rather hang out with books than people—constantly steep themselves in new ideas, and are always upping their game to see the world differently. Whenever I hang out with someone like this, I invariably leave more curious than I came, and feel like I understand the world better, too. To me, the most fascinating people are the ones who constantly learn about and connect new dots—whether those dots have to do with productivity, business, health, economics, travel, or anything else.

This is why I feel Bill Gates and I could become pretty good pals. It’s a safe assumption that Bill and I will never spend quality time together, but twice every year Bill does something I’ve always found fascinating: he takes a week off work, totally disconnects, and reads for 15 hours a day—without distractions or interruptions from the outside world.

Growing up, what I looked forward to more than anything else on family vacations was sitting on a chair, preferably by an ocean or a lake, and diving into whatever book piqued my curiosity. Before leaving home, I would fill my suitcase with huge stacks of books. This has always been my favorite way to relax—by soaking in and connecting new dots.

Leveling Up

Since starting my productivity project—where I soaked in and experimented with as much to do with productivity as possible for a year—I’ve become enchanted with this idea of stepping back, and doing a deep dive into becoming a better human being.

This is what I find attractive about productivity: reading about productivity takes time, but applying that knowledge lets you gain all that time back, and then some. There is immense value in periodically stepping back from your work to soak in new information so you can invest in yourself. Working with more knowledge helps you work smarter instead of harder, because you have more knowledge to make decisions with. This way, you can “level up” to carve out new ideas and approach problems differently, because you approach them with more knowledge and expertise. It also saves you time, because you can connect the expanding constellation of dots in your head to the work that’s right in front of you. Like investing in your productivity, investing in your skills and knowledge lets you approach your work more intelligently so you can get more done every day.

Over 20 years ago, on May 26, 1995, Bill Gates returned from one of his Think Weeks, and sent a memo to Microsoft executives. This famous memo was titled simply, “The Internet Tidal Wave,” and it ignited the company to invest heavily in the internet—a relatively nascent technology at the time. From the moment the memo was sent, Microsoft got to work, and in several years the company obliterated its competition in the internet space. It released a waterfall of technologies like Internet Explorer, MSN, and even MSNBC. Bill’s Think Week let him learn about and connect dots he would not have otherwise.

Shortly after, Bill Gates became the richest guy on the planet, and Microsoft became just as successful.


Your Personal Think Break

This is an extreme example, but I think it’s possible for us to level up in a similar way.

It would be unrealistic to suggest you take off a couple weeks a year to schedule a Think Week like Bill Gates does, as alluring as that idea sounds. The richest person in the world probably has a tad more flexibility in his work than you do. But the idea behind Bill’s Think Week ritual is extraordinarily valuable—that it’s worth stepping back from your work to think deeply about it, and invest in your skills.

It’s a bit ironic that taking a step back from your work can make you so much more productive. But when you’re in the trenches every day, it’s difficult to consider what’s most important in your work and how to invest in skills and knowledge that help you work smarter. The hardest time to step back from your work is when you’re immersed in it.

In practice, I’ve found carving out an entire week to invest in my knowledge and skills to be difficult—it’s hard enough to carve out one day. But whenever I do make an effort to carve out the time, regardless of how long I step back for, like with investing in my productivity, the break has paid for itself many times over.

When you step back to think hard about what’s most important in your work, and invest in your knowledge and skills—whether by acquiring new knowledge, firing up to learn something new, or having coffee with people you want to learn from—you level up in your work to work smarter, instead of just harder. The ritual pays for itself.

BreakI chatted with Greg McKeown—author of the terrific book Essentialism—when I was writing The Productivity Project. He recommended creating a similar ritual, but for just one day, four times a year. Greg calls this ritual a “personal quarterly offsite.”

The idea behind his ritual is simple:

  • Once every quarter (every three months) take one day off to think deeply about your work.
  • Use that time to ask yourself a crucial question. As Greg put it: “If I could only do one thing over the next 90 days in my professional life, what would that be?”
  • And then ask: “If there’s only one thing I should do in my personal life over the next 90 days, what would that be?”

These then become your focus for the quarter ahead.

Take it from Greg, Bill Gates, or even Warren Buffet (who spends 80% of his day reading and thinking): learning more doesn’t only make you a more interesting person—it also lets you work smarter and get more done every day.

As far as your productivity is concerned, carving out that time is a worthwhile investment.

  • I find that I do my best thinking while running :)

  • Great article. I have found that by starting with small manageable habits, you can get quite a bit of reading in. Right now, I shoot for just 30 mins of dedicated reading per day, but I never miss a day.

    • Nice! How many books a month do you find you finish that way?

  • Most of us spend too much time thinking — but thinking the wrong thoughts. I’ve read that 90% of our thoughts are the same ones repeated over and over. The inferred takeaway I get from this post is to take the time to educate yourself, open your mind to new ideas, and try thinking different thoughts for a change.

    It’s gratifying to hear of a young man like you Chris reading. Many young people don’t read books at all which is a crime. I recently got a surprisingly email from my local library stating that I had taken out 953 books in the four years I’ve had my library card. Maybe I need to get a life? LOL

    • I’d say you already have a life—and a pretty good one at that, with all those books ;-)

  • Thank you for this ideia. I plan on doing something like Bill Gates – one week reading. Once I’ve been one week without internet (to test myself) and dedicated a lot of time to reading. It was a great time to think, without all those distractions such as facebook, youtube and news.

    • It’s tough at first, but I agree, so totally worth it! Let me know how the week long ritual goes—might have to try it myself once the book launch dies down :-)

  • Gianni Cara

    Great stuff Chris, as usual.

    Like I said last time, maybe I think that I should spend more of my time reading books. One hour a day seems to be not enough.

    Since I work from home, one idea I had was to dedicate half of a day a week to learning. I am currently experimenting with the idea of “a day of focus”, where I spend 80% of this day working only on my main goal. So I think the “learning day” should work as well.

    Have you tried yourself this kind of experiments where you dedicate a huge part of your day to something specific? Would love to hear your insights.


    • I have done a few experiments dedicated to something specific, but something I usually try to do is make the experiments realistic at the same time (e.g. by working out only outside of working hours), or by doing experiments that live in the background (e.g. drinking only water).

      Would love to hear how the ritual goes! An hour a day is still pretty great if it doesn’t stick, though!

      • Gianni Cara


        So you prefer to not mix activities like reading a book or working out with your working hours, right?

        I’ll let you know in the next weeks how this new ritual goes!

        • I do mix the activities, but whenever I do them, especially if as an experiment, I work extra in order to make things a bit more realistic to the average reader :-)

          Excited to hear how it goes!

  • Knut B. Håland

    “Sharpen the saw” as Stephen Covey called the 7-habit I believe! Can´t agree more.

    PS: I was curious how much costs but when they can´t be bothered to inform on their page without making you start a registratrion process I decided to stay uninformed :-)

    • Sneaky! Looks like it’s about $25 after the trial expires. Also, I had no clue they were owned by LinkedIn now!

  • You know… I adore reading this blog but I don’t often comment. And certainly not to link to something else, but I recently released this HuffPost article and now, I know exactly 1. Why I’m craving the time away and 2. What I can do with my time. Read and think. Thank you so much for this!

  • Very interesting read! To “connect the dots” to a German article I recently read: it’s important to reflect, because as you learn more about a subject, viewing it from different sides, your opinion matures and gets more complexer. ( ) The same could be said about your “mission”, why you do what you do.
    I totally agree that the people who read a lot and are good in connecting the dots have often the most interesting opinions, being able to look at a subject from a variety of angles.

    I would like to recommend you to look into some of the articles of Darran Anderson for that reason: He reads a lot, focusing at utopias and imaginary cities in literature.
    One of my favorite quotes by him is:
    “Of course, writing and culture are vastly different now but originality
    is an elusive and, I think, a highly overrated idea. I’m not sure it
    exists and I’m not sure we should even want it to exist. Culture is an
    echo chamber and there’s more to be gained from embracing that than
    resisting or denying it.”

  • I do this on some days. Well, no 15 hours like Bill Gates (I’m not a mental gladiator!) but 3-4 hours. Phone off, computer off. Sitting on the couch reading a book.

    It’s like a mini-vacation. And it’s a sobering commentary on how much technology rules our lives when unplugging for a day or a week is a big deal. :)

  • Bridget

    I completely agree with this article but I have to question if reading is the only way to achieve this level of zen. Perhaps I should take a day to bake and stretch :)

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