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  • Luca Penati

What I've learned from painting my bathroom cabinets

After working 30 successful years in the agency world, on two different continents, last year, I decided to quit a job I liked but didn't love anymore. I didn't know what was next. I just wanted something different and needed some space to find my next calling. I had a blank canvas in front of me. I felt scared and reinvigorated at the same time.

Just a few days after my newly acquired freedom started, I found myself with a brush in my hand—something new for me. It was intimidating, but I was determined to find out if I could do it all by myself. After managing a team of 150+ people, continually putting out fires, and making quick decisions, this felt quite different. This time I was alone. It was just me. Me and the bathroom cabinets in front of me. I know what you are thinking. Bathroom cabinets? An unusual type of canvas. I was surprised too. I didn't expect to find myself -- a city boy not known for his handyman skills -- obsessed with the idea to renovate a bathroom.



Here a few things I have learned about me during that process:

  • I am built to feel productive—all the time. The busier, the better. 

  • I thrive when I get to learn new things—when I am out of my comfort zone.

  • In the next life, I'd like to create names of paint colors. 

But there's one additional thing that stood out: it's called "idle thinking."

As Laura Vanderkman says in this recent Medium article, "I'd accidentally created the perfect environment for a great idea." For me, it was while painting the bathroom cabinets. I felt exactly like Laura described: "I was engaging in just enough activity to stimulate my brain but not so much that my idea needed to compete with other thoughts."  In the beginning, I had to learn a lot, how to hold the brush so my hand wouldn't cramp, how much paint to apply, where I needed to sand first. But after a few drawers and panels, I started to feel more confident, and it became more repetitive and even soothing, almost like an active meditation. It calmed me down and centered me. I began to notice that my brain was working differently.


My thinking was more focused, crisper, better—all the noise was pushed out.  

Upstroke, downstroke, I remember thinking, "How can I bring this peaceful yet active state of mind into my next real job, so my thinking and my ideas are better?" 

A few months later, I launched PENATI AND PARTNERS and started to work with clients on various assignments. I didn't have any more cabinets to paint and believe me, I am glad I didn't. But I had problems to solve and needed a way to wander, to recreate these idle thinking moments. Walking on the beach. That was my choice. That's where I end up doing most of my "idle thinking." It's quite magical, actually. By the time I'm back, I have a clear idea of how to solve my client's problems or at least how to tackle them.

And it's not just about "having time," that, of course, it's a great start. It's more about how you use it. Or better, how not to use it.  Of course, when you have a corporate job, it isn't that easy. When was the last time you could idle, wander at your job? We are consistently bombarded by emails, messages, slack, reminders, alerts, tweets, zoom meetings, etc. You name it. And now, as we live through a pandemic, everything is exacerbated, and as we deal with uncertainty, productivity becomes a way to cope with our anxiety. 

In reality, we need to slow down, in order to get there faster.

So, if on your team, you have creatives or people who need to generate ideas, enable them to wander. Give them less. Don't invite them to endless meetings. Encourage them to take time to do things that you might feel are not productive. Trust me, you will end up having happier employees and better, bigger ideas.

Since everyone is busy nowadays, it's critical to build your idle moments into your schedule. Learning how to protect your time is crucial for your success and the success of everyone around you.  Try "idle thinking" and let me how it works for you. Or if you already do it, share in the comments section how you do it. What are your favorite idle moments? 

BTW, in case you were wondering, the bathroom came out great. 


Feel free to contact me if you need help with your strategy.