How to take a Think Week
An amateur’s guide to a billionaire’s practice.
Think weeks were first popularised by Bill Gates in the Netflix documentary “Inside Bill’s Brain" in 2019, but Billy G has been going on solo research retreats since the ‘80s.
This is a think week how-to guide. Stress on the “a” — because ultimately a think week should cater to your own needs. There’s no set format. That being said, there are some general rules of thumb, better-nots and ideas worth trying. After reading lots of blogs that give a lot of context but not enough actionable advice, I’m attempting to fill the void by passing on what works for me in the hope that it can help you spend a little less time thinking about how to take a think week, and more time think-weeking.
What’s a Think Week?
In its simplest form, a Think Week is a week dedicated to thinking. Bet you didn’t see that coming.
The Bill Gates definition is: a week devoted to reading up on important topics, twice a year. It’s a good place to start. After all, it’s the original, and also where Internet Explorer was born. But Bill also had his cabin pre-stacked with Diet Coke and Orange Crush. So, similar to Internet Explorer — there’s room for improvement.
I like to split my think week between business and personal. I set one business goal and one personal goal and then head out into the middle of nowhere to research, ask questions, get creative, write, reflect, detach, plan, strategise and get into flow. Dedicated time for deep work.
‘I know what you’re thinking — who can afford to take a whole week off from work? I look at my Think Weeks as a solution to what I call the “execution trap.” We stay really busy to keep moving the ball forward on our ideas. But what happens when we move the ball in the wrong direction? The busier you are, the more you can’t afford not to take a Think Week.’
Why go on a Think Week?
There’s definitely more than one reason. Bill did it to collect his thoughts on important topics twice a year. I’ve read a lot about people going on Think Weeks solely for self-development purposes. It’s up to you. Ask yourself; ‘if I could dedicate seven days to one topic with no distractions, what would have the biggest impact on my life/business?’.
I love being able to dive into a topic head first for days on end with no chance of disruption or distraction. Think weeks allow me to dedicate time to big ideas which need to be developed and analysed from different perspectives. There’s something about sticking with an idea for long periods which allows you to join more dots in better ways, sometimes leading to hacks, shortcuts and considering things your competition hasn’t — and there are things you can do to maximise the chances of that happening. More on that soon.
“People should have a ‘third place’ that isn’t work or home, where they can find focused time to think and create and clarify your strategic thinking. We must create an environment that gives us the ability to focus our minds without interruption from coworkers, spouses, children, pets and technology, or we’ll never be able to concentrate on higher-order activities.”
— Laura Stack, The Productivity Pro, on Think Weeks
How to take a Think Week
How you take your think week depends on why you’re taking it. There is no set menu. Bill keeps it really simple. He blocks a week, takes a pile of research papers, heads to a cabin where no one can reach him and just goes at them all day and night, interspersed with walks to think about what he’s reading.
And that’s really the core of it. Book a place somewhere quiet, make sure you can’t be disturbed, set your goals and go.
If you’re anything like me though, you need a better idea of how you’re going to spend your think week before dedicating a whole seven days to it. I’ll go into a bit more detail on what works for me and what doesn’t below.
Where to go?
Location, place and setting are critical to a good think week. Going anywhere new to work is great for creativity, but if you can find a place in nature where you can’t be disturbed, you’ve already covered most bases. Given the choice, I’d go for an isolated cabin far enough from the nearest village to have total peace and quiet, but close enough to be able to walk there if I need anything.
If you’re in Germany, these guys curate unique stays ideal for think weeks: https://www.staycationcollection.com/collection
‘When people disconnect and place themselves in an environment free from the internet, co-workers, meetings and other office distractions, they can clear away mental clutter and truly focus their thoughts. Going to a new location can also increase creativity and inspire new ideas by virtue of being in a different environment with fresh inputs.’
When to go?
Bill goes twice a year. Six months give him enough, but not too much, material to cover over the week. Some people go more often than that. See what kind of weather you prefer and see when it fits best with work, that’s about it.
Who to go with?
Three is a crowd. Two can work. But I’d definitely advocate going solo to get the most out of your think week. It puts you in full control of your plan, routine, and to a large extent — thoughts.
I’ve also got a lot out of a think week with my co-founder, Leo. If you’re going to go with another person, definitely think it through and plan it out together beforehand. Anything more than two people and it’s more of a talk week than a think week.
Think before you think
Half the think week is in how you prepare for it. It might sound tempting to just dive in, but it’s not a holiday. It makes sense to dedicate a day or at least an evening to planning each day of your think week in advance to get the most value possible out of it. And the earlier you book a place the better.
Set a goal, maybe two
I like to set one big business goal and one big personal goal. Things I know need time to be properly explored. I then intentionally shuffle between business and personal goals on alternate days, to give space for ideas to ruminate. Sometimes going totally off topic can join dots that no amount of focused work can. Having these goals makes you accountable to achieving them while not overloading you with pressure to execute like any other day at the office.
The goals for my last think week were 1) read the 5 year plan I wrote in 2017 and write a 10 year plan and 2) refine and simplify our compamy narrative so that it passes the grandma test.
Plan, but don’t over-plan
I’ve read lots of articles by people who tried to take a think week but bit off more than they could chew and left feeling overwhelmed. A one sentence to-do for each day is enough. To avoid getting overwhelmed while still getting the most out of your week, set goals, plan your days out and choose your input — and lack of.
I plan my days in advance to include time for research, for writing, podcasts, audiobooks, interviews and time to just think — normally while walking.
A note on notes
I find myself taking notes all day, everywhere. With no input from apps or work or anything, when my mind wanders it wanders on topics relevant to my goals, and I take notes on my phone — convenient and easy to copy-paste onto documents and decks. Take a journal and pen if you prefer.
Limit input to inspire creativity
Good ideas don’t just pop into your head (that’s a myth). Creativity needs boundaries. Setting goals and planning out your days to break down those goals is a great start.
I like to structure my days to go between three states of mind; focused input, focused output and free output. The cycle between them creates a hot spot for creativity — similar to why I dedicate alternate days to business and work, just on a day scale.
Focused input = example; reading a research paper.
Focused output = example; writing a video script.
Free output = example; ideas while on a nature walk.
‘Free input’ is what you want to avoid. The best example is social media — which is basically other people telling you what to think.
Nothing limits input better than a digital detox. With all social apps deleted, Do-Not-Disturb on and in the middle of nowhere, you can fully disconnect. You can just be.
If you’re going to take anything from this article, take this. The weight off your shoulders and clarity of thought it allows make it easily the most effective think week practice. Just let people know beforehand and make yourself contactable for emergencies.
A do-nothing day
I like to plan in a do-nothing day as my day one. No goals. No input. A full day to settle down, settle in, detach and see where my mind is at. I plan my walking routes the night before, take notes if anything worth noting comes up and meditate every few hours.
I like to meditate at least three times a day on think weeks compared to once a day on normal days. It sets the tone in the morning and then stills the mind after long thinking, writing and planning sessions. You can focus your meditation on all kinds of relevant topics like solitude, appreciation or prioritisation using Headspace.
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I plan nature walks into every day. It’s another form of meditation in which you can clear the mind, watch and guide your thoughts and let ideas flow — notepad in hand.
More on the effects of nature walks on your mind and work here.
It’s another bio-hack you can use to further focus the mind, but better do your research first. It also doesn’t make sense to just do it on the think week, you need to build it up and get used to it beforehand.
What about a Think Weekend?
Im against the idea of ‘think days’ or think weekends. Technically you could do one, but I don’t think they fall under the same category in terms of effect and potential. You need time to set yourself, to set your mind to disconnect mode and to have the time to do proper digging and creating.
I’ll readily acknowledge that a week in a cabin, in the middle of nowhere, alone, is some peoples’ idea of hell on earth. To each his own. But it’s worked for Billy G and since its recent popularisation, for a lot of other people too.
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