When I worked for a Fortune 100 company, I ran my entire life on a schedule. Meetings were slotted into 30 or 60 minute windows like clockwork. I started and ended on time. I rarely cancelled and only got a break if someone else did. I was a productivity machine, and frankly, I took great pride in it.
Unbelievably, I had a boss at one point who didn’t appreciate this talent. At all. In stark contrast with my schedule-driven life, he hardly ever knew what was on his calendar. He constantly kept us waiting in meetings (if he showed up at all), and would often disappear completely for hours at a time. When he returned, he would brush it off with a simple, “I was doing something more important.”
And guess what the something else usually was? THINKING! Of all things, he’d be thinking in some remote corner of the building while we waited (or were forced to forge ahead without him).
This killed me. How dare he blow off a room full of people, some of whom had flown in for the meeting, many of whom we were actually paying to be there? I was constantly in a huff about this.
During my performance review, he gave me the feedback that he did not find my ability to perfectly maintain a schedule to be an asset. He said I was spending so much time checking tasks off my full-to-the brim to do list that I was leaving no time to make sure the right things were even on that list.
I was crushed. And maybe a little defensive. And frankly, furious. Oh, I listened politely in the meeting, nodding in agreement, but when I went home, I fumed. I was convinced I had my system perfected and that he just didn’t appreciate it because he had no respect for the schedules of others. I have to admit that I didn’t change much after our discussion.
But now, a number of years later, from an entirely new vantage point, I’m beginning to see that he was right.
When that feedback came, I was in one of the first assignments of my career in which I had to set the agenda, instead of just following directions. I was used to having someone above me set the course, but now I had to shine the light for the people following me. I really was too attached to the pace of progress and not worried enough about being on the right course. It wasn’t enough anymore to move quickly and efficiently. I had to decide where to go.
I needed to make time for big ideas. For breakthroughs. And guess what.
You have to cancel other things when a breakthrough comes because those things can wait and these simply cannot.
I’ve learned that when I’m writing, I still need discipline. Each morning, I must have fingers on the keyboard and distractions cleared, but until inspiration pokes its head into the room, I might as well be moving my fingers over the keys of a piano instead of a laptop. Nothing worth anything transpires.
I can spend hours wrestling with the first few paragraphs of a piece, then get up to reheat my coffee, and BAM – the whole thing has practically written itself before I can even sit back down.
When that breakthrough comes, you can bet your life that I’m in my chair, fingers flying, trying to pin it to the page.
To create space for it, I leave a few blocks of unscheduled time in every day so that I can juggle things to let a breakthrough in. And yet, people still get kept waiting sometimes when a big idea reveals itself. My next meeting. A friend. My dentist.
I still hate that, but when it happens, it’s because something truly sacred is underway. Something that in that moment is more important. I’ve found that people are incredibly understanding (far more than I was) if I use this simple phrase.
Question: Do you struggle to leave open, unscheduled time in your day? Have you ever been rewarded for doing so with a breakthrough, in your business or your art or your life? Share your story in comments.
This post originally appeared on the Let Your Life Shine blog in March 2015.