What are four ways incredibly busy people can get some quiet time?
Our lives are filled with chatter, whether it’s virtual, physical, or in our own minds. Silence has become a rare commodity, one we think rarely about, and yet time to ourselves has become scarcer and scarcer. How can we carve out quiet time for ourselves when the world seems to be on full blast? Can we truly reach deeper thinking in our moments of silence?
Justin Talbot-Zorn is a Truman National Security Fellow and Public Policy Consultant. He's been a regular meditation teacher on Capitol Hill, where he also served as Legislative Director for three different Members of Congress. Leigh Marz is a former nonprofit executive director and is currently an organizational consultant, coach, and organizer of retreats for leading universities and federal agencies. I recently interviewed Leigh and Justin on the LEADx Podcast, where we discussed their article The Busier You Are, the More You Need Quiet Time and the benefits of silence. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: You say great thinking requires us to get beyond the noise. Why do you say that?
Justin Talbot-Zorn: Kevin, you know I personally learned this one the hard way, having worked in quite a few chaotic and crazy settings including, as you mentioned, Capitol Hill. I noticed that the constant chatter in the workplace or cable news blaring would just undermine my own capacity to do deeper, creative thinking, the kind of work that's really needed right now. Many of us now are drowning in information and starving for knowledge these days. We're really inspired by a book actually Cal Newport's recent book, Deep Work where he talks about how folks like J. K. Rowling and Walter Isaacson and Carl Jung back in the early 20th century had these incredibly disciplined practices for getting away from all of the noise in order to really tune into their intuition. They really dig into their research and then get into this moment of flow and silence, which struck us as the common denominator to getting into those moments of flow and getting into that kind of deep work.
We also thought about some others we know who have meditation practices. Someone who's been a mentor to me, Congressman Tim Ryan from Ohio and Ray Dalio and Bill George, Jerry Brown and others who've been very successful in the worlds of business and politics who've also developed in the modern age these practices for cultivating silence in order to do higher quality work.
Kruse: Is there a group that forms on Capitol Hill, or they do their own thing?
Talbot-Zorn: It's not super popular yet on Capitol Hill but there is a group, as you may have noticed. It's sometimes called the Quiet Time Caucus that meets and meditates regularly–both staff and members of Congress.
Leigh Marz: Yeah, with all of that, our own experience, we also started looking around at the science to see what the science is telling us about the need for silence, and so there is a good amount of science bubbling up and there’s more on the way that really links silence to development of new cells in the hippocampus, that's some stuff coming out of Duke University. Looking at the impact of music and even all different categories of music, they inserted little bits of silence and then measured that impact on the cardiovascular and respiratory system and found that it was the silence segments and not the relaxing.
The ones we thought would be, you know, the relaxing segments that really helped rejuvenate the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. And we have workplaces, these open workplaces that people can collaborate and exchange ideas and it sounds really great. As a collaboration consultant, prior to seeing all the science and research on it and promoted that, but really what people tell us and my clients have been telling us for some time is that there are a lot of distractions associated with that kind of an office plan and that disadvantages far outweigh the anticipated—but still totally unproven, anyway—advantages that we were anticipating there for collaboration.
Kruse: I don't really meet that many people who enjoy losing their cube or office and sitting in that open space.
Marz: The Journal of Environmental Psychology did a huge survey of 43,000 workers and what they found is that they might talk more often with their colleagues but it's really quite surface communication because you don't really feel like you can drop in deeply when everyone's listening so there are some real problems there.
Kruse: Are you just talking about noise in an open office, or are you also talking about getting quiet in other ways
Talbot-Zorn: It's a good question, Kevin. It's a really good question. For me personally, I can think of so many occasions where I get home after a really busy day being surrounded by a whole lot of noise and just be so happy to finally get some quiet time, and then I find that I can't quiet my own mental chatter, my mind is running. What we're talking about here in this article isn't just about getting into quiet places—though that's really important—but cultivating a deeper kind of quiet time–time when we don't have to talk. Time when we don't have to be funny or we don't have to sound smart. Time when we can just be. What we say in the article, Kevin, is that real sustained silence, having these real practices, creating that silence that facilitates clear and creative thinking, quiets the inner chatter as well as the outer chatter.
Kruse: I do ten interviews in a row sometimes, and just the process of focusing and thinking of what to say next is tiring. Is it like that?
Talbot-Zorn: That's right. One way that we think about it is that constant need to be ‘on,’ that constant need to think of what to say next, of what to write next, what to tweak next, that create this pressure. It creates this kind of fullness, this lack of space. Then, in turn it becomes tough to really listen, to really take in different perspectives or new ideas. For us, generating this kind of silence is about being able to get into those deeper modes of attention, and we think it's in those deeper modes that really good new ideas are found.
Kruse: What are some practical ways busy people can get quieter?
Marz: One of the things we love to point out is that these meetings that start at 2:00 in the afternoon say and then the next one starts at 3:00, they start on the hour and you're supposed to be at two places at once, but that's just not working for us. In a way, therapist in the agile community have it figured out a long time ago by putting in a little buffer for transition so you can actually be at the next place fresh and maybe even integrate what you just experienced and have some time to reflect. Justin has done some of that work in Capitol Hill helping people schedule a little better. Right, Justin?
Talbot-Zorn: A little bit, and I've even met folks in high levels of government agencies and in business who've really tried and practiced what leaders described as being able to punctuate these meetings with just five minutes of quiet time. Being able to close the office door and maybe it's a meditation practice, maybe it's just sitting there being quiet, letting the mind wander a little bit.
Kruse: What's something else that we could try?
Marz: Another thing we love to encourage people to do is to get out in nature and really to connect and even really go big and take an afternoon walk for a couple hours, leave the phone behind. One of the conferences that I set up regularly is with a prosector group, and they do a lot of deep thinking about how to get harmful chemicals out of our homes and environments. We, on purpose, designed a three- or four-hour chunk for people to just get out into nature and to drop in and connect to the reason for why we're doing all this hard work to get chemicals out of our homes and environments.
Kruse: Leigh said leave the phone behind so you're not bringing the noise into nature.
Talbot-Zorn: Exactly, you could take that to a further extent and try to bring it into our lives in a longer term way by trying out a media fast. Taking an afternoon and maybe a weekend with no phone or email, which I know some of your guests have tried before, Kevin, and spoken about. Then, there's really the opportunity to take the plunge, something both Leigh and I have done on different occasions of going out on meditation retreat. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, these aren't so much about withdrawing from society and mimicking the monastic life and forgetting all your worldly cares. The goal is really to just get beneath that every day verbal auditory track, that channel that we're talking about where stress resides by getting to a deeper place, of being able to listen, being able to hear real intuition.
Kruse: Have either of you experimented with the Muse headband where you develop your meditation skills at home?
Talbot-Zorn: I haven't used the headband. I'm still a little old school in that sense but sometimes when talking about developing these meditation skills or specially going on a retreat, it can sound daunting. It can sound way out there, but at the end of the day can really be very simple. Scheduling a little bit of time in the afternoon to meditate and by meditation we don't mean levitating or bending spoons, we're just finding some time. Watch the thoughts, just stay with the breath. As you mentioned, Kevin, just get back to those basic fundamental aspects, the experience of being human.
Kruse: I always like to challenge our listeners to get a little bit better every day. What can we do today?
Marz: That's a great question. I think that for your listeners to pay attention, like bring some awareness to what are the signals that they are getting in that ‘too busy’ place, what are the things that they are doing or noticing, perhaps, about how they feel or habits that are emerged in those times so that they can catch themselves and then find some other habit that works a little better. I'll give you an example. I noticed I'm not a terribly irritable person but when irritability arises in me, when I notice I'm just like a little shorter with my family or something like that, then I know it's time to do something, it's time to find some silence or some quiet to replenish.
Kruse: Did you want to add anything, Justin?
Talbot-Zorn: You know, building on what Leigh just shared I would say something really simple, which is just schedule some quiet unstructured time. We often feel like every moment of the day needs to be filled with being busy in order to admit our responsibilities to be productive. I'm always amazed, if I can just schedule 10 minutes, maybe 20 minutes, maybe even an hour of unstructured time in a quiet place where I can just see what arises in terms of insight, in terms of new ideas, the things to pursue in terms of relationships to invest and cultivate, that scheduling of unstructured quiet time is such a gift for me. It's easier to do than I often assume.
Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.