Knowledge Work Requires Thinking Time

Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, is famous for his voracious reading habit. Buffett spends most of his day reading, and believes firmly in the idea of compound interest. The more content he reads, the more knowledge he will have acquired — that knowledge will help him be a more efficient and effective worker. Charlie Munger, Buffett’s business partner, had one rule that summarizes how himself and Buffett thought about knowledge: go to bed smarter than when you woke up.

These two investors are some of the most successful in the world, and have spent their lives pursuing knowledge acquisition. Munger, in an interview for his authorized biography The Snowball, said “Charlie, as a very young lawyer, was probably getting $20 an hour. He thought to himself, “Who’s my most valuable client?” And he decided it was himself. So he decided to sell himself an hour each day.” In essence, Munger believed that it was worth his time just reading and thinking, even though he would not get paid for it. He was his most important client — improving his own knowledge would allow him to be a better worker.

Buffett and Munger are two famous examples, but in general most successful people have made a lot of time for reading and thinking. Steve Jobs was famous for pacing around rooms to think; Einstein went on long walks at the beach to clear his head; Bill Gates as the Chairman of Microsoft went on vacation to take a step back and think. Thinking is now a necessary part of our jobs. The core tenet of knowledge work is that you are paid for good ideas and being able to execute on those ideas. This is in contrast to the previous notion that workers were paid for labor, and following rules — factory work, manufacturing, et cetera. The working environment has changed so much — the emergence of the term “knowledge work” attests to how much things have changed — and so I believe that warrants our taking a step back to reflect on how we think about thinking.

In the past, workers would go to the office — or factory, or wherever else — to work between the hours of 9 and 5. Companies relied on labor, and the work that employees produced was clear and tangible. But good ideas are harder to quantify — the key to knowledge work. During these hours, workers would get everything done that was required of them, and then they would go home and mostly detach from work. However, the rise of technology and knowledge work has blurred the lines between work and home. Knowledge workers are paid to go to work, sure. But they are also paid for good ideas, and those good ideas can come at any moment in the day. A knowledge worker could have their best idea while reading a book in the evening. In essence, the very nature of our work is changing. Knowledge workers cannot be graded on their outputs, because oftentimes it is their inputs and process that matters most. When Steve Jobs was thinking, it was impossible for other people to know what he was doing and what his process was, but he had good ideas and executed on them. Nobody blamed Jobs for taking a step back to think.

I would argue that the whole idea of 9 to 5 work is no longer appropriate in knowledge work. The expectation that a knowledge worker produce X amount of reports or articles is no longer appropriate. A knowledge worker could spend their entire day thinking and end up with an idea that could generate the company a large amount of revenue in the future. But a lot of knowledge jobs are set out as if people need to output a certain amount of work each day — and that is incompatible with the model. Knowledge workers need to think, but they are not being given a lot of time to think. Perhaps this is why productivity growth is going down. When a knowledge worker is working, their work is not clear-cut. They could be thinking all day and come up with a great idea. Or they could be writing for a few hours and produce a great article for the company’s blog.

Our modern office environment is conductive to the idea that we should try to look as busy as possible. I have discussed this in previous essays, but the main point is that if we are not busy, it can make other people question whether or not we are productive. After all, if someone writes a report one day and you have nothing to show for your work aside from a few notes, that can make you look like you have fallen behind. But most of societies greatest thinkers were not interested in looking busy. As aforementioned, Einstein, Gates, Jobs, among thousands of others delegated a large portion of their time toward thinking. They realized that if they did not spend enough time thinking, the quality of their ideas would not be as high — they will not have had as much time to iterate on ideas, and digest their thoughts.

Thinking may sound lazy, but in the modern workforce thinking is critical. The most successful workers are those who know when to take a step back and think about an idea. During this time, they will synthesize the information they have gathered, scrutinize the idea, think about alternative solutions, and spend time analyzing each detail of an idea. This allows them to develop deeper comprehension over the material, and also makes it easier for them to improve upon ideas — they have time to let their brain think things through.

I think there is also an advantage to working fewer hours as a knowledge worker as well. If you are working on the traditional 9 to 5 schedule, then almost all of your thinking has to happen at work. But if you are expected to do less work in the office, you can spend more of your free time thinking and coming up with ideas that you can then work on in the office. If we moved to this working pattern, perhaps knowledge workers would do more in the office because they would have had sufficient free time to think things over. Many great workers come back after a weekend or a vacation saying something like “I have been thinking a lot lately about the X project, and I have a few ideas on how we can better structure our marketing strategy.” The time they have had to think has helped them realize that things could improve, even though they were not in the office. Perhaps the future knowledge worker will only work in the office for four hours each day. The rest of your time will be spent managing life commitments, taking unstructured time to think, and reflecting on your work.

This refers back to the idea of being wealthy above all else. If we can create a work schedule where we earn enough but are working four yours a day, we will be a lot happier than the person who is working eight hours a day and still needs to work overtime to cover their costs. If you earn more than you spend, you can perhaps reduce your hours and spend more time thinking in your free time. You may be better at your job after having time to reflect on your work, and you will also not have to worry about earning more because you already have enough. Knowledge work technically takes up your whole day — thinking never stops — but without taking structured time out of your schedule to think, you will end up becoming more distracted when you have tangible work to do.

Knowledge workers may have goals to meet in the workplace — without goals, it is hard to keep workers accountable — but that does not mean that they should be the main focus for workers. What matters most is their working process — how they think, and how much time they spend thinking. Then, after they have had time to think about ideas, they should be rated on their outputs and ability to execute — that is the other half of the job. The modern workforce should adapt to evaluate employees based on their outcomes, rather than whether they have been busy. Would you judge Steve Jobs because he spent two hours pacing around the room when there was other work to be done? No. Should you judge another office worker who has adopted the same strategy and needs time to think? No.