The time for the thinking prized by Obama and productivity analysts represents a more programmatic approach than merely finding free time. It seems absurd that anyone would need an instruction manual for vacation, but without one, the ambitious candidate might come to the end of his time off without any insight. Imagine you've set aside an afternoon to clean the garage. Where do you begin? You could just dive in, but in an hour you'll find yourself sitting on a canister of Lincoln Logs, going through your high-school yearbooks. "If you write, 'Solve problem of world peace'on the whiteboard," says Mann, "that's a big hoagie."
David Allen, who coaches CEOs all over the world on how to be more productive, says the first question he'd ask a candidate is what has taken hold on their attention. What's eating at them that must be cleared so that they can start doing the big thinking? Attention can be eaten up by specific problems ("We must kick that reporter off the plane!") and existential ones ("Do I believe in free trade?").
This isn't a one-time process. Candidates need to use some of their thinking time to find a system for dealing with issues that are always going to pop up. There are many solutions here. They could carry a Hipster PDA—index cards that track goals and capture ideas and problems that need to be addressed before disappearing. Or they could draw up a project list. The truly committed candidate could embrace the entire Getting Things Done methodology, but he'd have to do it two years before he started running.
The idea is to break down whatever distracts them into addressable nibblets that can be tackled before they accumulate into big problems that require a vacation's worth of thinking. If a candidate plans well, he'll trust his in-the-moment responses (because they're part of a strategy), and he'll reduce the indefinable nagging feeling that unaddressed problems remain.
The point of blocking out periods of undisturbed attention, say the experts, is to apply your best creative thinking to your most important problems. But if that means getting back to your true self, as Obama suggests, how do you do that? This process requires a level of self-awareness that atrophies over a campaign. You're not supposed to be self-aware or ponderous. There's no time for it, and it's unhealthy for lots of reasons. You start to worry that Maureen Dowd is going to call you an elitist, for one thing. Obama and McCain could read the biographies they wrote, I suppose, though they might find unpleasant contradictions with the campaigns they're running.
Both candidates are fortunate, because they know what produces their best thinking. Barack Obama will probably spend some of his vacation writing. It's clear from his autobiography, and from the model answers he gave students when he was a law professor, that he processes ideas by working them out on paper. Yes, he writes speeches during the campaign, but as good as they may sometimes be, they are programmatic, formulaic, and targeted. If he's trying to recapture his center, it's going to take a deeper kind of writing.
McCain would design the opposite regimen for his vacation. He's not a writer; he's a talker. In conversation he tries out new ideas and thinks aloud, changing his mind as he engages in back-and-forth with advisers and others. That's why he's so frustrated by his new on-message campaign. The freewheeling conversations on his campaign bus used to sustain him, but now his aides worry that they will interrupt his daily campaign message. (The equivalent would be if Obama were to let the press watch over his shoulder as he writes.) On his vacation, maybe McCain could schedule off-the-record bus tours with reporters, editorial writers, and experts in various fields.
Politicians may have the most acute form of a condition Linda Stone calls "continuous partial attention." In this state, our minds are constantly scanning for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, at any given moment. The analogy for me is my e-mail inbox: I hate it. It is a Superfund Site. But I keep checking it because there might be a new opportunity I should grab or a response I've been waiting for that will allow me to get back to work on an idea. I don't want to miss anything. I'm Gollum, and I can't take off the ring.
Presidential candidates don't have to worry about e-mail—they've got staffers who can handle that—but they live in a world where speed is rewarded. Candidates who move quickly can define an issue on their terms. Those who don't move quickly let their opponents define them, which can take weeks to undo. The challenge for presidential candidates, as Merlin Mann puts it, is "to know when to stop scanning your campground for bears long enough to make S'mores."
Good luck with your vacation, Sen. Obama. And Sen. McCain, maybe you can find some time on the bus.