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3 ways to find pockets of focus time during packed days

Try to find some personal space with these tips.

3 ways to find pockets of focus time during packed days
[Photos: MirageC/Getty Images; Chumporn Norsana / EyeEm/Getty Images]

When Michelle Millben served as a White House adviser and Congressional liaison for President Obama, the idea of finding time for quiet reflection often seemed, in a word, ludicrous.

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She was working almost around the clock, managing relations between the White House and lawmakers in the final years of the Administration.

But Michelle, a practicing minister and professional musician as well as a professional in politics and law—recognized that all the sound and stimulation was unsustainable. She knew she needed time for reflection in silence in order to maintain her energy, find clarity, and make the right decisions.

So, she relied on a simple but unconventional strategy: She scheduled tiny increments of quiet time in her day.

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Today, as the founder and CEO of an educational  startup targeted to kids, Michelle continues to work to guard the silent sanctuaries in her calendar. For years now, Michelle has used a spreadsheet as a “reality check” to see when she might find pockets of silence in her day. Each cell typically represents a 15-minute increment that spans somewhere between 5am to 10 p.m. She lists first what she has to do—her primary professional obligations, regular calls with her mom, and meals—then lists a bit of what she wants to do as well, like seeing friends. Then, she examines her schedule, and invariably finds that she does, in fact, have available pockets of time for quiet. She marks some of these times in the calendar. For example, most mornings, she schedules a little time to be in silence before she sets about her day. This time preserves her natural “morning mindset”—free of the inputs of other minds.

The word “spreadsheet” doesn’t typically evoke feelings of quiet serenity. But, for Michelle, it’s been one useful tool to demarcate her sanctuaries.

When we asked Michelle about the importance of this practice of safeguarding silence to her professional success, she paused, took a deep breath, and closed her eyes.

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“It’s my own little force field,” she said.

Over the course of dozens of interviews with leaders in business, politics, science, and the arts for our book Golden: The Power of Silence in a World of Noise, we’ve heard about the importance of creating these quiet sanctuaries for health, cognition, and creativity. We’ve discovered a range of strategies for finding time and space for quiet in the midst of a busy schedule.

Here are three ideas to consider.

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Schedule a time to do nothing—and then protect it

The former US Secretary of State George Schultz, during his time in office, would block off one hour per week for absolutely no meetings or other commitments. He scheduled this period to just sit and think about whatever would come to him, with nothing but a pen and paper. He’d tell his assistant to hold all his calls, unless one of two people called: “my wife or the President.” Why did Schultz defend this time so zealously? It was the only period of time when he could get beyond the crises of the day and think strategically. It was when his best ideas emerged. George Schultz’s experience, like Michelle Millben’s, underscores a simple but rarely-recognized fact: We can safeguard silent time—just like any other important appointment. This doesn’t mean we have to have a practice of meditation. Schultz, for example, just sat there and pondered what came to his mind. You can make time to simply be in silence.

Find micro-moments in your daily routine

Aaron Maniam is a widely-recognized innovator on e-governance issues and a senior government official in Singapore. He’s also an award-winning poet. While Aaron is immersed in a high-volume professional life, he honors his need for quiet through simple day-to-day practices. “I’m a big believer—whenever I can remember—in taking one deep breath before I do anything,” he told us. “Whether that’s opening the door, standing up to leave the room, turning on the tap for some water, or turning on or off the lights—just one deep breath.” He adds: “And it takes nothing—like two or three seconds.” Aaron applies the practice throughout his workday. “Before I start a new document, before I read a new email—one deep breath—and then I continue.” This effort can be intuitive: just stop to pause in silence in moments of transition. But you can also look at your daily schedule in the morning, making mental note of times when you might find brief moments of quiet. Even if these silences are fleeting, see if you can give them your fullest attention. Like Aaron, see if you can make time for silence in the spaces in between all the content of your life.

Try not talking for just one day

Gandhi had a little-known practice for managing the noise in his life. Every Monday, he observed a “day of silence.” He didn’t speak a word. While he didn’t spend the whole day alone in meditation (he sometimes saw colleagues and even attended conferences), he abstained from offering opinions or making decisions. It was a ritual that helped him to stay centered and to clarify what was really important. “It has often occurred to me,” Gandhi wrote late in his life, “that a seeker after truth has to be silent.” Take inspiration from Gandhi and see if you can schedule just one day to be silent. If the responsibilities of your work or childcare obligations make a wordless day impossible, see if you can set aside just three or four hours. The key to getting started is simple: check-in with the people around you who will be most affected. Tell them why a silent day matters to you. Describe your plan. See if they have any questions, and find agreement on the ground rules—like, for example, under what circumstances you can be interrupted. Again, finding silence can require scheduling and planning.

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The world is noisier than it’s ever been—not just among our individual experiences but also on our screens. But silence is, thankfully, still accessible. We just need to be proactive and creative in order to find it.


Justin Zorn has served as a policymaker as well as meditation teacher to the U.S. Congress. He is a coauthor of Golden: The Power of Silence in a World of Noise.

Leigh Marz is the coauthor of Golden: The Power of Silence in a World of Noise. She is a consultant and leadership coach to several universities, companies, and government agencies.

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