Why you should set aside one day every quarter just to think

It is very, very easy to get lost in the day-to-day. There's always some fire to put out, or some recurring task that needs doing, which makes it hard to focus on big-picture stuff.

This is what a Quarterly Think Day is all about. The idea is to take time and space to reflect, learn, and prioritize for the next three to six months. I learned about this concept from Jessie Link, VP of Engineering at Twitter, at a LeadDev Together conference session on personal development. 

I decided to try it out. I found it a good way to prioritize, think strategically, and re-energize. I'm going to talk about what I learned, but first, let's talk about how to plan your own Quarterly Think Day. 

What to do on a Quarterly Think Day

The name kind of explains it: once a quarter, you take an entire day to think. What about? This time is for asking yourself some critical questions. 

  • What's important to me?

  • What are all the things I need to get done?

  • Where do I want to be six months from now?

  • What must I do?

  • What should I do?

  • What can I delegate?

  • What do I want to do?

Don't do anything other than think about these questions, and make sure you do that completely offline. Yes: computers are nice. You will have plenty of time to use them later. Today is about thinking, and computers have a tendency to distract you from that. 

So use Post-its, Sharpies, and index cards. Draw on your window, if it helps. Just take the time to be alone with your thoughts. 

A few steps for planning ahead

You probably can't just disappear from work without any planning, and you need to make sure this day is productive. Here are a few things you should do before your Quarterly Think Day so that everything goes smoothly. 

  1. Block out the whole day. Announce to your team that you will be offline, and make sure you don't have any meetings scheduled (at least, not meetings that aren't related to your quarterly think day).

  2. Set a schedule. You don't want to stare at a blank sheet all day, so make sure you know which questions you'll be thinking about when. 

  3. Have clear goals. Be clear with yourself on what you want to accomplish by the end of the day. 

  4. Schedule in breaks. Thinking about big questions is intense, so plan on having some downtime. Take a walk, maybe, or go get some coffee. Just try to stay offline so that your mind can keep wandering. 

  5. Document what you come up with. This way, you can revisit your thoughts in six months and review how much you actually followed through. 

Yes, this means you'll be spending time on prep in addition to spending an entire day on the thinking. Believe me: it's worth it. 

My first Quarterly Think Day 

As a Data Engineering Manager, my days are gobbled up by one-on-ones with nine direct reports, meetings with stakeholders, and planning meetings. That doesn't leave much time for deep thinking. I find the Quarterly Think day a way to battle the "busy manager" this HBR article warns us against. 

And I can unambiguously call my first Think Day a success. I found time to re-energize and formulate a plan for the next several months. Here was my agenda. 

Thomas's agenda

Let's talk a bit about what worked and what didn't, so you can learn from my experience. 

What went well? 

A few things really, really worked out for me. I was mostly offline for the entire day—everything was conducted on paper, sticky notes in particular. This alone is a success. I took a few breaks for walks and workouts, which helped me recharge and get back to thinking with a fresh mind, but for the most part, it was just my mind and a bunch of paper. 

I focused on the BICEPS framework, which is all about finding balance between six core needs: belonging, improvement/progress, choice, equality/fairness, predictability, and significance. 

Thomas's visualization of BICEPS

I realized I want to make improvements in the equality/fairness and improvement/progress areas, so I'm going to work on that going forward. I also realized that I feel really strongly about belonging at Zapier, which is my foundation to stretch, take risks, and do great things. This will reframe my work in all kinds of ways, so I'm glad I took the time. 

I recently wrote a self-assessment of my engineering manager/leadership abilities, so I also used this time to reflect on that.

Finally, I scheduled a meeting with my business coach. I recommend you do the same, if you have a coach, because it's hard to think of a better time to talk about your long-term goals. 

What could have been better?

It wasn't perfect—I will do things differently next time. For example, I should have planned out my agenda a week ahead of time. I left this until a couple days beforehand, and that meant I didn't get into my Think Day in the proper headspace.

I also need to be more realistic about my own writing capabilities. I had grand plans in terms of writing output, but I didn't get very far. My writing process takes a long time. I made progress but definitely do not have a finished piece of work. I should plan around that for next time because unrealistic expectations aren't helpful. 

Overall, a success

So, what did I end up thinking about? Here are my answers to every question outlined above. 

Sticky notes with Thomas's answers on them

As you can see, I did a lot of thinking. I learned a lot. I fully intend to do one of these every three months from now on and to use this to update my personal growth plan. If this sounds useful to you, I recommend you try it out. 

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