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September 2014: Speed Traps

“Apparently there is nothing that cannot happen today.”

Mark Twain

Last year, a nationally-known business leader suggested I write a comic book on leadership.

“Leaders don’t want to take the time to read a complicated book,” he said. “Provocative, short and simple – something they can read in dribs and drabs – that would be great.”

When a leader’s attention span is short, does it reflect a fear of wasting time? Is it an indicator of garden-variety ADD? Or are more and more leaders simply anti-intellectual?

On a recent talk show, a time management guru broke down how much time the average person wastes in a day. “We don’t take time seriously,” he said. “Because it’s the one resource we take for granted, we tend to waste it. We not only waste time at the office, we unconsciously waste it in the kitchen, in the shower, and on the toilet…”

I starting imagining ways we could save time in all those places:

Faster toasters.

Strategic washing of critical body parts while ignoring the hair, torso and legs.

Giant, moisturizing ceiling blowers that greet a freshly-showered time-saver with a powerful whoosh! – leaving a body bone-dry, yet velvety, in 20 seconds, making towels obsolete.

Timed bowel movements. You heard me right.

I can see it now: A client excuses himself from the lunch table to visit the bathroom, and returns with the panting but proud announcement: “That only took me 90 seconds!”

Laugh all you want, but speed is the new religion. The dominant societal and business cultures espouse fast and immediate results, promising hefty rewards for stuffing more and more “accomplishments” into every hour.

Obsessed with speed

Our obsession with speed has given us faster computers, on-line banking, faster food, and shorter surgeries. We breathe, talk, eat, think, copulate and sleep faster than ever. Less mature individuals, “caught-up” in these speed traps, will view a quickened pace as across-the-board progress.

Of course, there’s a catch. Our insides are also moving faster. We have intensified our reactivity to others: quick to judge, quick to blame, quick to jump in when our kids have a problem. Chronic anxiety has become the stubborn companion of many parents and organizational leaders. Living in the swirl of constant pressure has enabled greater short-term efficiency at a haunting cost: more and more people are depressed, burned out, or disillusioned.

This same fast pace exacts a toll on leadership. In the past few years, the top-level leaders who participate in our Advanced Leadership Course have noted a striking disadvantage to their efficiency-driven speed: many report that they have no time to think.

That’s a big problem, considering that much of what it takes to lead well – accurately observing self and others, building strong relationships, and coaching direct reports on difficult yet important issues – requires attentive time to prepare and execute.

Slower thinking

One starting point to counter our up-tempo lives would be slower thinking.

“Slow” is often stereotyped as a synonym for mental limitation, laziness or a poor work ethic. But that’s only one angle. A more measured pace is also associated with reflection, deeper insight, slower breathing and more accurate decisions.

In his excellent book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman suggests that fast thinking is essential, but its counterpart, slow thinking, has the last word.

How might slower thinking help leaders? Here are some meaty potential benefits:

  1. Slow thinking would provide a checkpoint for automatic decisions and behaviors. For example, Kahneman says we are often confident even when we are wrong, and, commonly, blind to the obvious. Might slowing the train help us see the countryside?

  2. Slowing down might promote better self-control, for example, helping us “catch ourselves” before we lash out in frustration, or avoid an impulsive purchase.

  3. Slow thinking promotes objectivity, enabling us to more readily detect errors and temper rash judgments.

  4. Our ability to acknowledge our own ignorance and uncertainty might be aided by slowing down our “fast and automatic” thinking.

  5. We might discover that slowing our thinking helps us to see the system-wide contributors to problems and symptoms. As a result, maybe we would not be so quick to treat problems in isolation.

  6. Slowness likely sharpens intuition. Herbert Simon, another Nobel Laureate, whose clients included chess masters, said: “Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition of cues that provide information.” Could we pick up cues more effectively if we weren’t moving so fast?

Speed Has Its Place

There’s a big advantage to quickly detecting a lie, accurately computing a simple math problem or responding without hesitation to an emergency. Blazing thinking speed has its place and shouldn’t be under-estimated.

But too much of it disrupts healthy patterns of decision-making, sleeping, eating, rejuvenating, conversing with family members and friends, moving our bodies, and learning from nature.

The irony is that leaders probably won’t recognize the benefits of slow thinking unless they slow down.

2 Responses to “September 2014: Speed Traps”

  1. September 02, 2014 at 1:37 pm, Mike Nuccitelli said:

John, great blog this month and a great reminder to all of us. Slowing down for me takes a total commitment to a change in how I function. I started focusing on slowing down about a year ago and still have a long way to go to but can tell you that the progress already made has had a positive effect both professionally and personally. Thanks for the reinforcement.

  1. September 07, 2014 at 2:34 am, M A Greenstein said:

John i concur with Mike- a worthy commentary on the growing cultural obsession with speed, no doubt driven by the need to emulate our speed of light, info tech machines.

In my early graduate training as a choreographer / movement behavior specialist, Robert Dunn, colleague of John Cage often reminded us – “the slower you move, the more you can feel” – highlighting the value of hightened sensing for improvisational movement. (And creating a readied body /mind least likely to avoid injuries.) Alas, all training began with “contemplative” practice – specfically, mindful meditation – today thanks to neuroscience research, we know slows down the nervous systems in addition to opening up networks of thinking, imagining and problem solving.

I stand with you as a kindred spirit in ushering in new values and practices for slowing down.

Happy to speak more with you on this topic.

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