Bill Gates' Think Week Practice Can Help Boost Your Creativity and Focus Your Mind

Max Phillips

I’ve enjoyed reading for most of my life, but I have never dedicated an entire week to broadening my horizons. Twice a year, Bill Gates takes a self-proclaimed “think week.” He spends seven days of solitude in a cabin in the forest. While there, he is physically removed from the interruptions that come with being the world’s second-richest person. Therefore, he can sit down and think.

As Ryan Holiday writes in Stillness Is The Key,he might be alone there, but he is hardly lonely.” Gates reads paper after paper for up to 18 hours a day. Specifically, he would read innovation and investment ideas from Microsoft employees, relentlessly scribbling notes.

In 1995, a Think Week paper Gates wrote titled “The Internet Tidal Wave” led to the production of Internet Explorer. As the Wall Street Journal reports, plans to create Microsoft’s Tablet PC, build more-secure software and start an online video game business were all a result of the Think Week.

Stephen Lawler, a Microsoft general manager of the MapPoint group, said it is “the world’s coolest suggestion box.” As of 2005, Gates’ record stood at 112 papers. He would send emails to teams around the world, offering suggestions and instructing senior members at Microsoft to read specific documents.

Before we get started, let me be clear about something. You don’t need to read 112 books in one week to be successful. Gates’ method is extreme. It works for him by facilitating his goals and catering to his personality. What it does is offer a valuable insight into the mind of one of the world’s most influential men, while also providing some perspective on your own life.

We Spend Too Much Time Keeping Up

Every morning, I sit at my desk and go over the to-do list I wrote the night before. It all seems very achievable. As the day goes by, I sometimes realise I am far from hitting the required target. Consequently, I am spending most of my day keeping up with my previously set expectations rather than getting ahead.

Humans need routine. It’s like muscle memory — over time, the more you do something, the easier it becomes. However, that leaves you open to becoming stuck in a rut. A 2015 study found that only three in ten Britons are happy with their lives, and 69% are trapped in their familiar routine.

The problem is, routines can be asking too much. According to The Busy Person’s Guide to the Done List, 41% of to-do list items are never completed. We are consistently setting ourselves up for failure. The world is becoming increasingly dependent on them, too. A 2008 study found that among a surveyed group of US citizens, 76% reported having at least one list.

Admittedly, I do find they help, even if I don’t complete all the tasks on them. Over time, however, the continuing struggle to achieve the bare minimum can lead you into a rut. The idea of a Think Week helps prevent this. As Nelson Mandela once said:

“There is no passion to be found playing small in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”

A man like Bill Gates no doubt has a million and one things to do a day. By taking a Think Week, he is stating his intent. He isn’t happy with getting by; he wants to get ahead. An executive needs to consider the future, as current projects will inevitably expire. A freelance writer can enjoy their current task, but if they don’t think ahead, they’ll struggle to keep up. I want to improve, so I’ve devised some more practical ways of applying Gates’ idea.

  • Leave your book/kindle on your pillow, so you read a bit before bed. This way, you can fill your brain with some new thoughts to sleep on, manifesting them for the next day.
  • Take some time every few weeks to evaluate the next books you’re going to read. I love to explore the Kindle store and see what is next (I’ve got five books yearning to be opened!).
  • Sign up to newsletters you think are interesting. Working in retail, I regularly ask customers for their emails. The typical response? “No thanks, I get too many as it is.” That’s perfectly understandable. But if you’re inbox is rammed, why not top it up with something worthwhile? Lately, I’ve enjoyed the Inc Magazine and James Clear’s 3–2–1 newsletters.
When to apply it: As often as you can. If something triggers your curiosity, give it your attention. Don’t let the future go stale.

We Don’t Actually Spend Much Time Alone

As of 2019, users spent an average of 144 minutes across eight different social media apps worldwide per day. Now imagine a typical day. Let’s say you have a 9–5. You wake up, go to work, then perhaps exercise after. You’re home by 7:30 (ish), which leaves you about 2.5 hours for relaxation time. If you thought about it, how much of that time do you spend genuinely relaxing?

More often than not, we fill the void with social media. I am no different. There are times when I know I’m procrastinating but do it anyway. That needs to change. In his Think Week, Gates wholly isolates himself from the rest of the world. He has no visitors bar a maid who drops over meals twice a day. It’s just him and the papers he is reading.

In their book Lead Yourself First, authors Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin define solitude as a state in which your mind is free from input from other minds. I love this interpretation. It’s so simple but complicated at the same time. The person you spend the most time with is you, but the ease in which others can hijack your mind means you rarely get a moment alone.

You could argue that Gates isn’t truly in solitude when he is locked away in his cabin — he has thousands of inputs from other minds he needs to read. However, solitude doesn’t need to be a staring competition with the wall. Instead, you can focus on improving the input into your mind. Get lost in a film or book, or put some emotion-evoking music on to trigger creative and new thoughts.

I spend far too much time on social media, but it is something I am looking to change. Taking principles from Bill Gates’ Think Week, you can do that too.

  • On your phone, there will be a setting you can use to limit the amount of time you use social media. Once the time is up, the app locks, or, if you still find your attention being drawn to your phone, put your phone out of sight. As I write this article, my phone is in the draw. Out of sight, out of mind, genuinely works.
  • Put some plants in your office. A co-worker recently suggested buying a Bonsai tree for my desk. I laughed it off, but it turns out they have quite a few benefits.

There’s a reason Gates holds his Think Week in a cabin in the forest. Being in nature is proven to have positive effects on the body, as a study found that it reduced feelings of isolation, promoted calm, and lifted mood among surveyed patients.

To improve yourself, you want the best possible conditions. Moreover, researchers from the University of Michigan say that nature-filled areas are packed “with intriguing stimuli that modestly grabs attention in a bottom-up fashion,” compared to urban environments. This helps replenish our capacity for attention and focus, according to We Work.

When to apply it: Any time of the day when you have nothing highly essential to do. For instance, look at the passing scenery on a train ride instead of reading the same tweet you saw five minutes ago. Get lost in a film or a book before bed. Fill your brain with useful information.

We Rush to Be First Instead of Being Right

Denzel Washington once said this in an interview:

“One of the effects of too much information is the need to be first, not even to be true anymore… Anything you practice you’ll get good at, even BS.”

As news channels are on 24 hours a day, there is a constant need to be first. Sometimes, taking the slow approach is the way forward. Of course, most people can’t take two weeks out of their year to lock themselves in a cabin and read 100 papers. Nevertheless, Bill Gates understands that he needs to take the appropriate amount of time to read, understand, evaluate and act on the new idea presented before him.

I remember when I had a maths exam at school. One time, I finished before what felt like everyone else in the hall. At first, I was happy and felt proud of myself. Then, as I saw everyone else continue to work, I began to worry. So, I looked over the paper and realised I’d missed a few pages. Luckily, I just about finished in time. From that moment forward, I made sure always to check how many pages there were before diving into the first question.

Denzel Washington is right. Anything you practise you’ll get good at, even BS. The same goes for improvement. Gates dedicates two tireless, hard weeks of reading to not only improve himself but Microsoft too. It requires a respectable amount of focus and dedication.

Nearly every time I see a headline on Twitter, someone is reacting negatively to it, subsequently followed by another user telling them to read the article. An average visitor will only read an article for 15 seconds or less and watch the average video for 10 seconds, according to Forbes. There’s a simple step you can take to improving yourself:

  • When you see a headline, take the time to read the article.

A reported 50% of internet users get the news from social media rather than news stations; algorithms dictate how we view the world. Content needs to be widely shared and likeable before we see it, so chances are it might have been manipulated. Moreover, if you don’t know enough about a subject, don’t comment on it. Being a good listener is a sign of emotional intelligence, and the new knowledge gained will increase your actual intelligence too.

When to apply it: Using social media, a rash reply can leave you in hot water, especially if you use it for your career. Be the tortoise and take a second.

We Need a Healthy Balance Between Reflection and Action

According to the Havard Business Review, research in call centres showed that employees who spent 15 minutes at the end of the day reflecting on the lessons learned performed 23% better after ten days than those who did not reflect. Reflecting is a critical but often forgotten task. Iyanla Vanzant has this to say:

“The journey into self-love and self-acceptance must begin with self-examination. Until you take the journey of self-reflection, it is almost impossible to grow or learn in life.”

Bill Gates doesn’t plan his Think Weeks down to the last minute. He has a pile he wants to read and goes with it. He recognises that while being busy may feel like it gives you purpose, it doesn’t.

Upon meeting Warren Buffett, Gates was shocked to see the lightness of his calendar. Whereas Gates had his days packed and planned to the minute, Buffett would often have days with nothing planned at all. In an interview, Gates said:

You control your time… sitting and thinking may be a much higher priority. It’s not a proxy of your seriousness that you’ve filled every minute in your schedule.”

He reflected on that lesson. Of course, life needs structure. We’d probably crumble without it. Even so, mixing reflection with action can pay dividends in the future.

When I first started weightlifting, it went well. I put on muscle fairly quickly and got stronger. As time passed, the growth slowed. Instead of reflecting, I continued to keep going as I did. It took a broken collar bone for me to look back and think about how I needed to change my training style. I worked on form instead of lifting as much as possible as I tried to work around my injury. That period inspired me to learn more about fitness, which enables me to keep it exciting today, more than five years on. Reflection isn’t difficult. Here’s how you do it:

  • Take inspiration from the research I mentioned and reflect on the lessons you’ve learned at the end of each day. Specifically, try journaling before you go to sleep.

Although adding a task onto an already packed schedule may seem unappealing, journaling can help put out your worries on paper and dispel them from your mind. Studies have shown that the emotional release that comes from keeping a journal helps to lower anxiety and stress, helping you have a better night sleep. For full reflection, write down a few things:

  • What went well that day (what you’re grateful for).
  • What didn’t go well — how you can improve.
  • Your goals and the steps you will take to reach them the next day.
When to apply it: Before bed, as I’ve explained, I like to put on some relaxing music, journal, and then get ready for bed, so my mind is fully reset for sleeping.

We Need More Thinking Breaks

Bill Gates could live the rest of his life without trying to improve anything. Perhaps that is why he feels the need to go to such great lengths to do so. For you and I, things are different. In this day and age, you typically can’t be too slow. The next life hack is just around the corner, and delivery times are getting shorter.

More often than not, people hope their lives will improve but don’t take the time to improve them. For a long while after university, I expected an opportunity would arise in front of me. I was naive and wrong. Taking the time to think — to reflect and act — is entirely attainable. Whether it be a week or an hour, you decide.

As I said earlier, you don’t need to lock yourself away in the woods for a week. Read one paper a year or read 100. Do what works for you. After all, you are the best judge of your character.

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