In the winter of 2012, I experienced what every traveler dreads: a lost bag. Stranded without so much as a toothbrush, I had to replace everything—and fast. At first, this seemed like a pain. But in the end, I came to see it as a blessing. Why? Because in replacing everything—from head to toe, including the toothbrush—it became an unexpected opportunity for a fresh start.
I don’t want to overstate this. After all, I’m just talking about clothes, but the experience did make me stop and think. It made me realize that, in the absence of disruptive event like this, it’s all too easy to get stuck in our ways. Careers, habits, ways of thinking—they all run the risk of atrophying.
During the many years that he ran Microsoft Corporation, Bill Gates was famous for taking “Think Weeks.” Twice a year, he would spend seven days by himself at a cabin in the forest. To ensure maximum productivity, no one was allowed to visit—not friends, not family. To this day, the location has been kept secret.
During these weeks away, Gates would spend all of his time reading and writing and thinking about the future of technology. In interviews, he has said that these Think Weeks were instrumental in helping him stay on top of trends and ahead of competition.
While the idea of a Think Week is appealing, it’s a luxury few can afford. But you don’t need a secret cabin and a helicopter to engage in renewal. What’s most important is to recognize the need to revisit and re-evaluate existing habits, beliefs and ways of doing things—and to do this on a regular basis.
In a 2013 paper, psychologist Jordi Quoidbach and colleagues coined the term “end of history illusion.” What does this mean? As the authors put it, people tend to believe that, “they had changed a lot in the past but would change relatively little in the future.” Put another way, people “regard the present as a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives.” The upshot: Everyone acknowledges that they’ve undergone significant change in the past, but they mistakenly think they won’t change much in the future. The study found that people of all ages—from children to the elderly—saw themselves this way.
This illusion is a problem because, at best, it can make us uninterested in change. And at worst, it can make us resistant to change. To be sure, there is value in stability. We can’t throw everything out the window every day. But on balance, change is vital—whether it’s in a professional or a personal context. In his classic book The Innovator’s Dilemma, Harvard professor Clayton Christensen goes further, making the point that change is important regardless of how successful you already are. This is why, presumably, Bill Gates continued to devote so much time to learning and thinking despite having already achieved enormous success and why I think it’s such a good idea.
So what can you do if you’re not Bill Gates and don’t have unlimited time to sequester yourself? I recommend this three-part formula that should fit into anyone’s schedule. And note: If you’re married, I recommend that you spend some of this time together with your spouse. Even though Bill Gates spent his time alone, what he was reading were things his employees had written for him. Collaboration is key.
First, choose a topic. Here I’d suggest you think broadly. Yes, it’s important to focus on the details of your finances and investments. But you should also recognize that the relationship between money and happiness runs in both directions. Research has shown that if you increase your level of happiness, that can translate into increased earnings. So as you’re building an agenda for your own thinking time, consider your health, stress level, friendships and other areas that you might not view as specifically money-related. Then move on to more obvious topics like your career, household finances and financial plan.
Second, choose a place. I don’t think you have to travel far. The key here is just to get away from your day-to-day environment and to avoid interruption. For that reason, your local Starbucks isn’t a good idea. Some people like to book a hotel room. If that sounds too isolating, you might seek out a comfortable hotel lobby. Just find someplace that is a little off your beaten path.
Finally, choose a time. Most people can’t afford a week in the woods, and that’s probably overkill for ordinary people. You might set aside as little as 30 minutes on a Sunday, or maybe half a day twice a year. Just as you might use Daylight Savings Time as a reminder to change the batteries in your smoke detector, I recommend setting a regular schedule. Otherwise, it’s too easy for life to get in the way—and that’s precisely what you’re trying to avoid.