Over at Slow Leadership, this week has been all about using your time. I don’t set out to give each week’s postings a single theme, but sometimes it happens that way.
It began with considering the relationship between time, action and thought in a posting I called Taking Your Time. Some people claim that jumping into actions and decisions without stopping to think is the right thing to do. They want you to put your trust in intuition: a vaguely-defined process below the level of consciousness that is somehow more accurate and powerful than thought or reasoning. I guess Freud started it, with his ideas of an unconscious mind, but even he never suggested such a process is better or more accurate than reasoning or logic. That’s believing in magic.
Science has shown that human beings typically have a limited taste for the workings of chance and randomness. The human mind tries to reject the idea that things happen for no reason—by chance—and tries instead to discover, or invent, a cause to explain each observed effect. People point to cases when blind intuition (not the kind from informed experience based on long years of study and practice) seemed to work and ignore all the cases when it did not. Anecdotal evidence is always partial: it claims support for what is already believed, skips over any contrary evidence, and ignores the equally likely possibility that the times when intuition came up with the goods were due to nothing but chance.
If taking time to think is more likely to produce a sound basis for action than putting your faith in magical intuition, relying on evidence and proof is clearly a better basis for knowledge than emotions. That brought me back to one of my favorite thinkers, Bertrand Russell, and a post called Those Much-ignored Essentials: Time, Thought, and Proof. In today’s rushed, stressed, and pressured working environment, it’s easy to mistake emotional statements for rational arguments. The media, relying on sound-bites and 30-second news stories, rates anything that hits home hard and fast, however irrational, so we’re all coming to place far too much reliance on emotional “arguments” (which are no arguments at all, since emotional claims allow for no alternatives). It’s unfashionable, even heretical, to decline to accept “human interest” in place of hard news, or point out how much sentimentality there is in conventional beliefs about good and evil, but I do it just the same.
Back to time and the necessity to slow down. I ended the week thinking about communication. If organizations stopped believing that improving communication skills is a panacea for every problem in the workplace, tens of thousands of consultants and trainers would be out of work overnight. In writing Taking Time Out to Listen, I didn’t quite go that far, but I did suggest that haste, pressure, superficiality, and anxiety—all aspects of today’s business environment that undermine the capacity to pay attention—might have more to do with problems of communication than any lack of skill.
The natural process of “tuning out” topics, values, and motivations you don’t care about is given a massive boost by pressure and lack of time, creating blind spots in your perception. As a result, much of what is being “broadcast” by others is filtered out before it even reaches your consciousness. We’re back to intuition and instant responses. If a topic doesn’t grab your distracted attention right away, it’s thrown in the mental wastebasket unread and unheard. And that’s a great way to miss things that later turn out to be important.
The antidote is cultivating a greater willingness to open your mind and senses to unfamiliar topics, including those currently assumed to have little or no value. That takes time and attention. And so we return to the need for time: time to listen carefully, develop an open-minded and broad-based view of the world, and come to decisions through thought and reflection, not magical beliefs in the power of intuition.
Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his posts most days at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership.
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