Business Series Podcast Ep.13 – Creating Space to Think in a Busy World with Alison Sheridan

Business Series Podcast

Creating Space to Think in a Busy World

In this episode, Ankush speaks with Alison Sheridan about creating “space” to think at a time when we find ourselves busier than ever. Some of what they discuss include:

– Why is it important to create space to think and the downsides of not doing that?

– Slowing Down to Speed Up

– How we create more space for ourselves?

– A case study of working with a client to reduce business and an example of the cost of not doing so

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To contact Alison and find out more about her work, visit

Full Transcript


[00:00:03.01] Ankush: Welcome to the business series pod cast. My name is Ankush Jain, and I’m a state of mind coach, working with businesses and individuals. On each episode of this series, I’ll be speaking to a coach or trainer on a different topic relevant to your career or personal development. Enjoy.


[00:00:23.24] Ankush: Welcome back to another episode of the business series pod cast. Today I’m joined by Alison Sheridan, who works with senior corporate executives and business owners and she’s done so for 20 years, and designed and facilitated leadership development programmes. I’m pleased to have Alison with me, and today we’re going to talk about creating space to think in a busy world. Alison’s someone that I did a training course with several years ago, so I’m really glad that we’re managing to catch up today and discuss this topic, so welcome Alison.


[00:00:55.19] Alison: Thanks Kush.


[00:00:57.16] Ankush: So let’s just jump in as I always do on this podcast, with just discussing the title a little bit around creating space to think. Why is this actually important? Don’t we just need to be getting on with stuff? Why do we need to have space, surely we should just be doing more and more and more?


[00:01:14.14] Alison: Absolutely. That’s one of those unexamined myths of the business world isn’t it? It also for, clients I’ve worked with, it almost seems like an impossible luxury, to be able to create any type of space to think, and yet, from what I experience with them, I would almost view it now as a business necessity, because of the busyness of the business world. So, if the people listening are anything like my clients, they’re probably meant to be on 24/7. There’s no breaks in that, weekends included now these days. They have back-to-back meetings every day, they have email, they have client-employee issues, they have initiatives coming after them left, right and centre, and then a lot of people now, as you know Kush, work in matrix organisations, which is a very different ball game about how you navigate your way through that. And there’s many other things, so that all leads to what I’ve seen them having really really busy minds, and no space in their heads for anything else.

The down side of that, which we never really notice because we’re so busy, is that they’re rarely present, they’re often distracted, so they’ll be in a business meeting, their bodies might be there but their heads are elsewhere which then means they don’t listen so well, somebody maybe says something they don’t agree with, but they don’t have the capacity to hear maybe the wisdom in that, so they’re defensive and reactive. They tend to be stressed, they tend to think it’s normal, but with all that going on, particularly in their own inner space, it’s very hard for them then, well they make mistakes, they’re exhausted, and they crave, it’s funny the number of times it’s like, only if I could have time to think, and I often, wonder well who’s it going to start with? Who’s going to break the mould and realise the upside of creating space to think in a busy world? Where in whatever way it works for you it brings you off automatic, it gives you back perspective, because when we’re in a really…when our heads are really busy, we don’t see very clearly, or our focus is very narrow, we’re very engaged with our own thinking, so, our peripheral vision disappears, our clarity of thinking disappears, or becomes cloudy. It takes longer to make decisions, and often the decisions people are making aren’t optimal, or they make a decision and then it doesn’t work out and they have to go back and spend even more energy and effort fixing what went wrong as opposed to when the mind’s settled, they see clearer, they actually get more done with less effort, so I think there’s, it’s not a luxury, it’s almost an imperative. It’s smart, my people are really really smart, so when they start to see this for themselves, they start to make different choices, and they start to see different things happening in their worlds, they start to feel differently as well.

So there are huge implications for either choosing to create space to think in a busy world or not, and as you say, we all just are on automatic thinking it’s normal, it’s good to be busy. I get promoted by being busy. No, you have to get good results, any results, so that’s my take on it, that it’s priceless, and I don’t know of any other profession, I could be wrong, but if you think of artists or sports people or people who create things, I don’t know of any other profession like that, that we just think it’s okay to be on 24/7, and to think that that’s actually got to be helpful and sustainable, not only for the individual, or the people in the organisation, but actually for the bottom line of the business as well.


[00:05:31.15] Ankush: We were talking just before we pressed record and you’re also talking about the cost of not doing this because, people might be listening to this going, yeah that’s very nice, I can relate to that, well wouldn’t that be nice to have Alison, but let’s get realistic. We don’t have that luxury, but what was really interesting was what you talked about, you mentioned a couple of times that it’s now a necessity, but maybe it would be great if you could talk a little bit more about, well what’s the cost of not doing this?


[00:05:59.03] Alison:  Well the cost of not doing it, and I like to talk, Kush from what I’ve seen from the experience of my clients rather than theory, because you can go and buy lots of books, but that doesn’t actually help very much, so, what I’ve seen with them is when they don’t, well invariably, when they first come to me, they don’t, because they’re in all these meetings, somehow they’re meant to get from one meeting to the other in a matter of minutes. It’s really really weird, so what I’ve see is they get lost in their minds, and they’re projecting usually forward into the future, into their imaginations of all the things they have to do. So meetings that are going to happen next week, or, so I had one lady who came and she’s just moved across to the States to build up a whole new division for her organisation, so she is now away from head office, so there’s that as many people working that virtual world, and when she came on the coaching call, here’s another thing I noticed, they don’t breathe anymore, so it’s really really fast speaking, I wondered when she was breathing, and it was all about this meeting next week, and what she was going to do and the tactics, and it was all, how do I get my way or anything, and what I noticed when she calmed down, she was much more able to see it was about building relationships, not about getting what she wants so, in a way, your thinking gets cloudy and you start to think silly things, you start to think things you wouldn’t normally think when your heads clear, and that one, let’s say hypothetically if that conversation hadn’t of happened, and she hadn’t seen for herself, what her mind was doing, she then would have gone into that meeting from a totally different place and it wouldn’t have built relationships, it probably would have damaged them because she wasn’t clear, so just taking that time out to think, well hold on a minute, what’s that going to create, what do I really want to create? Really helped bring back focus, so I see it as, that’s one thing, when people don’t take space to think they operate on automatic, they operate on best they’ve got even though their minds are full.

So when they take space to think, it’s like going on holiday for a short period of time, the mind can relax and then they have new ideas and insights about how to handle challenges that they’re having, that they would just not possibly be able to have in their normal day-to-day. The other one I see is a big one, business is about relationships, and the other big thing I see is, when we don’t take time to think and come off automatic, the stories we have, running in our internal space that we then project out onto the world, keep running, so we always see people the same way, so if I think, oh yeah that guy’s just an idiot, and I never question it, I never reflect upon that, I’m never going to see actually when he’s doing really good things, so I had a leader once who, it was his number two, and he was literally going to sack the guy, because he had this huge big story about him not showing up, he doesn’t answer emails, he’s off doing something, and when he chose to just take some space to think about that situation, so that had been his mindset probably for a good six months, when he took time out, because obviously he was about to make a very big decision, suddenly from out of nowhere, he started to realise, well hold on a minute, this guy’s actually doing, he might be away and not visible in the office, but there are some things that he is doing and he is doing things that I wouldn’t normally do, and he started to see the guy in a whole new way. Remember this was a really bad dysfunctional relationship, they were not getting on, his number two was about to get fired, and as he saw more and more of what he hadn’t been seeing before, or fresh, he was thinking differently about this guy, all of a sudden of course his mind started to see more and more and more good things this guy was doing. He wasn’t doing what my leader had been expecting him to be doing, but he was doing a lot of other really good things, and instead of firing him when they came back together, which I thought was pretty cool, my leader was really honest about, and told this guy straight up what had been happening in his world, in his mental process, and they cleared a lot of that story between them out of the way, and they rebuilt and re-created a totally new working relationship where the number two got to thrive, where he did thrive, and they had to negotiate on things that my leader did want him to do that he wasn’t doing, but it wasn’t huge, and the guy became a rock star, so that potential was always there, but because, and this is true for all leaders, when we get caught up in our heads and we have a story about somebody, that’s what we tend to see, until we take space to think, hold on, is what I’m seeing actually really real or is it, made up in my head? What am I not seeing? And that I’m sure had implications for that businesses bottom line as well, what they then created together, because they had a working agreement, let’s say, as opposed to when they were pitted against each other.


[00:11:42.19] Ankush:   As you’re talking Alison, I’m reminded of the saying in my world, in the coaching world which is, “Slow down to speed up.”


[00:11:50.26] Alison:  Yeah.


[00:11:51.24] Ankush:   Because it sounds like, what I sometimes don’t see and what my clients sometimes don’t see and everyone doesn’t see sometimes is, when we’re going so fast, our tendency is to speed up even more, and if we look at, is that actually effective…


[00:12:07.20] Alison:  Well everybody else is doing it, so… Somebody once told me, I think it was Bill Petit I heard it from that allegedly we’re the only species that when we’re lost or confused, we go at it harder. Every other species stops, settles, finds it’s way again and then moves, whereas we just go at it harder, you know? Thinking that that’s the smart way to move forward, and it’s innocent, it’s just like this machine, until people step off the machine for a certain amount of time, and then go back on consciously and with greater awareness.


[00:12:51.13] Ankush:   So, let’s say I’m a leader or anyone working in a large organisation, I’m finding myself being really sped up, and I know this is intellectually a good idea.


[00:13:01.20] Alison:  Yeah, absolutely.


[00:13:02.00] Ankush:   How do I do that, how do I create the space for myself, or how do I create the space for my employees? So that we can actually be more effective and get more done?


[00:13:11.08] Alison:  Yeah, that’s a great question. Yes, because I can imagine Kush you’re right, for some people it will seem like quite a radical act, being the person who turns left, when everybody else is headed towards the right, and what I’ve seen happen is that they start off doing it, and then it sort of, they have to prove it to themselves. They do it once or twice and then they see the benefits, and then it starts to become, I will answer your question. They then start to see the benefits and what it gives them, and then it starts to become, it actually goes into their calendars.

So, let me give a couple of case studies of what has happened, people who have done it, and then let’s do the how-to’s. I’ll be quite brief, one guy who came, so this is now part of, he sees it part of his responsibility as a leader actually to create space to think, and for all of his – he’s a CEO in a German organisation – and the same for his employees, but he didn’t think that when we first met. He was one of those people, he wasn’t a CEO at that time actually, who works seven days a week, even worked Saturday evenings, and he had a young family. But he believed that that’s what he had to do to stay on top of everything, because so much was coming at him. So roll on probably three or four years, he started to play with it, and he now blocks time out, he actually blocks time out daily, and what it’s given him, it was a very beautiful way he said it, he said to me recently that what it’s given him, now, this was what it came from, he lives in a waterfall of insight, and because it’s been so powerful for him, he has encouraged all, certainly his leadership team, to do the same, and for the teams to do the same, so it’s becoming part of their culture, but it did start with him.

There’s no prescription, so this is usually when people want to “give me the seven steps to, how to create space to think…” You know, “tell me how to do it.” There isn’t a prescription because, what’s happened to all of my people is, once their awareness becomes more acute as to the downside, what it’s costing them not to do it, they really think about the upsides because they haven’t experienced them yet, but they see and they feel the downsides, awareness itself, awareness itself, ideas come to them, so, and my people are real practical people, so, I had one guy believe it or not, he put four bottles of red wine on his desk, that was his version, which of course, created quite a lot of consternation, you know people would come in and go, “what?” And he would explain, “that reminds me to take space to think.” Somebody else had the idea of, this was a really practical one, she realised that she was at too many meetings, so she brought her team together and said, “okay, which meetings do I not actually need to be at, but I’m showing up because I’m sort of meant to be there?” That culled about 30% of her meetings I think. She then again in collaboration with her team said, “okay do our meetings need to be this long?” So all her meetings now are 45 minutes, so she has reclaimed 15 minutes from all of those, which obviously then gives her a chunk of time every day, where she has much more space to think. So that’s a real practical one, but the important piece is, those ideas came from them, they didn’t come from somebody outside. I didn’t tell them what to do or what was a good idea, I didn’t even tell them what anybody else did.

I have another guy who leaves work, still works, but he goes home on a Friday at 2pm, and he works from home, and that’s where he reflects on his week, how have I been? What’s happened? What’s worked, what hasn’t worked? What’s happening next week, how do I want to be with my people next week, what do I want to be focusing on? And the beauty about that is it frees up his weekend, it’s like it ends his week, but those are things they have, and they try and test different things, you can create space to think that way, you can create space to think in a second. It doesn’t have to be formal, but what I love about when you turn awareness in this direction, ideas come to you that are right for you, not somebody else. So yesterday I had a busy mind about this interview at one point, right, so I had to go, oh, what am I going to say? I thought well, this is not going to be very productive right now if I’m going to write from this place of fear and insecurity, and ego, and the thought just occurred to me to go for a walk. So I happen to live in the country and I went to go for a walk and naturally my mind just quietened, and I still took my busy mind with me, I’m not that smart, but I had ideas and I just saw so much clearer, and I thought it’s just four chunks, and this is probably what would make sense. So that probably took say, 10 minutes, and I could have sat here and flogged it to death for about an hour, but I was in swirl land, you know, whatever I would have created would have been incomprehensible or not very helpful, hopefully this has been helpful obviously, just the assumption that it is, but equally the thought could have occurred to me to just take a breath or go make a cup of tea, but the key was the first realisation that, alright I’m lost in my head right now. I could feel the effects of it, and then the next bit was the idea to, didn’t come from my thinking, it was just an idea to go have a walk, this is not clever.


[00:19:08.19] Ankush:   What I’m hearing from what you’re saying, I’m reminded of the pareto principle, which you know I think headline if people don’t know it is that, 80% of our success, 80% of our results come from 20% of our effort, and what I’m really taking away from this is actually when we’re being really really really busy and listening to that case study or example of that lady who took out 30% of her meetings and cut down the length of her meetings, is actually to look back and say well, I’m doing all of this work, I’m spending all of this time, I have no time left for space, but do we really need to be spending all of that time, and actually is only 20% of what we’re doing really contributing to the vast bulk of the success we’re having in our role?


[00:20:02.17] Alison:  And I don’t think people realise because I suppose are living in a bubble or my people are maybe living in a bubble, the corporate bubble let’s say, or the corporate juggernaut should I say. I was working with a big client, it was early the start of this year and we were going after a really difficult business challenge that they hadn’t been able to solve, so there was a team there and everything like that, and we were talking about the mind and the power of the mind and after a couple of days of that, day three it was over to them and for them to start creating ideas and I was really shocked and I checked this out with a couple of execs when I came back, so this team were like coming up with ideas and I thought, okay well they’re coming up with ideas, that’s good, and as judgemental as this was, my head said, my children could be coming up with these ideas. And it was only the next day, where really meaty innovative ideas came through, and when I came back from that, I saw a couple of clients I’ve worked with for years, and I said, “is it only me, or I’m just seeing the corporate world really suffering because of this churn?” People are just churning, doing what they do everyday, thinking that’s what gets them results in the busyness, attending the meetings. I think my husband told me House of Fraser is in trouble now, apparently in the BBC last night, their head of purchasing I think it was, was saying that her reality was that she was stuck in head office all the time just attending meetings and she was never able to actually do the job she was paid for, to be out in the stores, see what was working, what should we be buying, finding out. At what cost? You know, at what cost?


[00:22:06.17] Ankush:   Yeah and it’s fascinating because, certainly in the UK, what we’ve been hearing in the news a lot, is so many large stores and brands really suffering, so you’re right, recently at the time of this recording, it’s been the House of Fraser, in recent months it’s been, years ago we had a big iconic chain Woolworth’s go into administration and we’ve had Jessops and we’ve had, more recently, Toys ‘R’ Us in the US and the UK, but what’s been really fascinating for me is, in each of these cases, there is some competitor of theirs, who has actually been really thriving, so when I read the article about House of Fraser, and there’s also another brand called Debenhams who are suffering, at the bottom on the same year Selfridges was doing pretty well and Harrods had had record profits, so it’s not about, oh well… Because you always here the market’s changed, the economy’s poor and shoppers are like this, but actually there’s always people who, regardless of what the circumstances are, can rise up to meet them and address them and actually make very good money in doing so.


[00:23:23.00] Alison:  Absolutely, and I think that loops back Kush, well for me anyway, to, how critical it is to create space to think, to step out of that maelstrom and enable oneself or your team, wisdom can arise anywhere, ideas can come from anywhere. Isn’t it interesting that generally leadership teams don’t go to the whole organisation and say, “who’s got some ideas?” I was once told, I don’t know if this was true or not, but it was a factory floor worker who, in Apple, in days when all phone joys held them vertically, who it was a factory floor worker, who had the idea of, I’d quite like to view this horizontally, it transformed the whole of that market. Didn’t come from a think tank, didn’t come from R&D, it was just somebody who had an idea, and how many ideas are getting lost? Whereas if we take time to think, then new ideas, radical ideas, fresh ideas, can come through that we just would never cross our minds when we’re being busy.


[00:24:32.17] Ankush:   If someone’s listening to this, we’ve covered a lot today, what’s the one thing you want them to take away from this interview?


[00:24:40.12] Alison:  I was about to be really superficial and say, to create space to think because it will make you a lot of money. That’s a by product. Just to not underestimate the power of taking space to think, and test it out for yourself. Dare to test it out for yourself and see. I’ve never ever worked with anyone who hasn’t had huge shifts financially, personally, career-wise, when they start to embrace this and do it, and it doesn’t’ have to be huge big thing, we’re not talking about taking hours out, it can be 10 minutes like I did yesterday, but have it, what if it could become part of your modus operandi? And then seeing what it gives you… that was a long one thing, wasn’t it?


[00:25:37.00] Ankush:   No that was great and I’m taking away a lot from this. If someone wanted to stay in touch with you or find out more about you, what’s the best way that they might be able to do that?


[00:25:49.06] Alison:  Oh best way is to email me, at, I’m just revamping my website, so when it’s live, my website’s, but easiest way at the moment is


[00:26:05.28] Ankush:   Well thank you very much for your time today, it’s been a fascinating conversation, and I’ll be back next week with another conversation.


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