Think Better


The Thinker (with phone) – with all due apologies to Rodin!

This blog is primarily focused on performance improvement. Perhaps the first place improvement of performance starts is with how each of us thinks. An article by Teddy Wayne in The New York Times, “The End of Reflection,” focused on the act of reflective thinking and introspection. Introspection, a sign of metacognition, or “thinking about thinking” is important because, among other things, it is part of how we critically evaluate our own process of thought, a kind of quality assurance for thinking if you will.

In 2010, researchers led by Dr. Stephen Fleming at the Wellcome Trust Center for Neuroimaging at University College London published a paper in the journal Science in which they correlated introspective ability with the amount of gray matter in the prefrontal cortex. Building on this work

Brian Maniscalco and Hakwan Lau published a paper in Neuroscience of Consciousness in 2015 that measured introspective ability while subjects were either able to focus on one task or distracted by a difficult second task. Being distracted by the second task didn’t hurt actual performance on the first task, but it did impair the subjects’ ability to be introspective. The finding supports previous widespread evidence that multitasking leads to lower cognitive performance.

It is therefore “a reasonable conjecture,” Dr. Fleming said, if we think of navigating the world as a “first task” and looking at one’s phone as a “second task,” that the latter hinders our capacity to reflect.

“The prefrontal cortex is good at doing one thing at a time,” he said. “If you put people in a dual-task setting, part of the reason things become impaired is because that secondary task interferes with the functions involved in introspection.”

Wayne argued in his piece:

For a certain percentage of the population, the thoughts that they may have kept private in a pre-smartphone age — letting them marinate and perhaps deepen till they could no longer be articulated in fewer than 140 characters — are now ejected into a public forum.

Moreover, the internet typically rewards speed over all else, a quality at odds with deliberative thought — and our appetite for velocity is only increasing as data transfer rates improve. In 2006, Forrester Research found that online shoppers expected web pages to load in under four seconds. Three years later, the number was shaved to two seconds; slower web pages led many shoppers to look elsewhere.

By 2012, Google engineers had discovered that when results take longer than two-fifths of a second to appear, people search less, and lagging just one quarter of a second behind a rival site can drive users away.

“That hints at the way that, as our technologies increase the intensity of stimulation and the flow of new things, we adapt to that pace,” Mr. Carr said. “We become less patient. When moments without stimulation arise, we start to feel panicked and don’t know what to do with them, because we’ve trained ourselves to expect this stimulation — new notifications and alerts and so on.”

What this often translates to in the discourse of the internet is demand for immediate and perfunctory “hot takes” rather than carefully weighed judgments, whether they’re about serious or superficial matters.

We’ve adopted the Google ideal of the mind, which is that you have a question that you can answer quickly: close-ended, well-defined questions. Lost in that conception is that there’s also this open-ended way of thinking where you’re not always trying to answer a question. You’re trying to go where that thought leads you. As a society, we’re saying that that way of thinking isn’t as important anymore. It’s viewed as inefficient.

For many years, in developing and coaching Process Excellence professionals, I have encouraged habits that focused on the constant articulation and testing of our assumptions. PE professionals, like all people, operate within a system of assumptions. But in order to more effectively challenge and improve things such professionals must actively engage in self-checking, in thinking about how we are thinking in order to catch ourselves in self-fulfilling lines of inquiry. It is also important to not just ask ourselves how to make something better but why we are doing something and why a different approach is perhaps better at a system level.

So what’s “the so what?” Wayne’s article also touches on the powerful distraction machine to which  most of us are tethered: our phones.

“Finding moments to engage in contemplative thinking has always been a challenge, since we’re distractible,” said Nicholas Carr, author of “The Shallows.” “But now that we’re carrying these powerful media devices around with us all day long, those opportunities become even less frequent, for the simple reason that we have this ability to distract ourselves constantly.”

Neuroplasticity (or the brain’s ability to change) due to technological use is a hot topic. In a world in which a phone or computer is rarely more than arm’s length away, are we eliminating introspection at times that may have formerly been conducive to it? And is the depth of that reflection compromised because we have retrained ourselves to seek out the immediate gratification of external stimuli?

If the data is any indication, most of us use our phones more than we think: Participants estimated an average of 37 uses throughout the day (anything that turns on the screen, from hitting snooze to making a call), but the actual number was around 85. The slight majority took less than 30 seconds. (Participants also underestimated duration of use by about an hour — the real total was 5.05 hours — which included phone calls and listening to music when the screen was off.)

If you are awake for 16 hours, turning on or checking your phone 85 times means doing so about once every 11 minutes (and doesn’t account for internet use on a computer), and 5.05 hours is over 30 percent of the day. What might be the effect on reflection of this compulsive behavior?

I we want to think better, perhaps the starting point is turning off your phone (and smart watch) for part of the day. That is a real exercise in change management of oneself.

3 Comments on “Think Better”

  1. Cameron says:

    Great post ! I’ve also found Cal Newport’s thoughts and book on Deep Work very interesting.

  2. brucem says:

    Thanks Cameron for the recommendation. I got the book and quite enjoyed it. I’ll be writing a blog post about Deep Work shortly.

  3. […] a lot of time each day is spent on discretionary activities often related to our smartphones i.e. checking our Facebook […]

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