Contemplation is important

contemplateIn an increasingly fast-moving world, some people are beginning to realize that slowing down and having time to think is important.

Back in 2010, smartphones seemed to herald a new always-on, rapidly moving world. An article in Forbes seemed to sum up how people thought mobility would improve the world:

… coordination replaces planning … we are seeing more work processes move to approaches that favor just-in-time coordination over advanced planning. It is more efficient and more flexible … As we find ourselves tied to mobile devices, coordination will increasingly become the organizing principle that defines how we get work done; we will become a network of spontaneous gathering, loosely coordinated agents in constant contact.

Spontaneity and speed seemed to be the rallying cry of the new world. In the business world, we were told how connectedness and speed will improve factory operations and process efficiency in warehouses. It looked like we were moving into a world where continuous activity and 24/7 real-time response would be required.

However, some dissenting voices were being raised. One of the major proponents of a ‘slower world’, Tony Schwartz, wrote an article in 2012 saying that:

Speed is the enemy of depth, nuance, subtlety, attention to detail, reflection, learning, and rich relationships — the enemy of much, in short, that makes life worth living.

… Speed is a source of stimulation and fleeting pleasure

… The faster we move, the less we feel, which may be a primary reason we move so fast. Most of us are more worried, uncertain, and insecure than we care to acknowledge, even to ourselves. Moving fast keeps those discomfiting feelings at bay.

Around the same time, the founder of an African startup believed that smartphones and 24/7 response capability might be making us less productive and

jeopardizing long-term productivity by eliminating predictable time off that ensures balance in our lives.

John Wegner, the Director of the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Research at Angelo State University, wrote about a former time:

… where boredom reigned and no one cared.

He noted recent research showing that:

… boredom is good for the brain. Evidently, boredom switches our brain’s little buttons and the synapses and neurons start firing on more cylinders, pushing us to creativity and intellectual growth.

Adding to the argument, an article in the New York Times on The Joy of Quiet quoted some famous authors:

Henry David Thoreau reminded us that “the man whose horse trots a mile in a minute does not carry the most important messages.” Even half a century ago, Marshall McLuhan, who came closer than most to seeing what was coming, warned, “When things come at you very fast, naturally you lose touch with yourself.” Thomas Merton struck a chord with millions, by not just noting that “Man was made for the highest activity, which is, in fact, his rest,”

That article also also quotes from Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows, about tests that found:

after spending time in quiet rural settings, subjects “exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory and generally improved cognition. Their brains become both calmer and sharper.” More than that, empathy, as well as deep thought, depends (as neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio have found) on neural processes that are “inherently slow.” The very ones our high-speed lives have little time for.

The need to switch off and slow down is even being recognized by world leaders. On Tony Schwartz’s Energy Project site, there’s an article about the need for contemplation and reflection:

It’s not possible to move from one activity to the next at blinding speed and be reflective at the same time. The more complex and demanding the work we do, the wider, deeper and longer the perspective we require to do it well.

[an] observation by President Obama caught on an open mike during a stroll with Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain in 2008:
“The most important thing you need to do [in this job] is to have big chunks of time during the day when all you’re doing is thinking.”

… good judgment grows out of reflection, and reflection requires the sort of quiet time that gets crowded out by the next demand.

… Regular reflection also provides the space in which to decide what not to do … Time to reflect is what makes it possible to prioritize.

There was even a conference, Wisdom 2.0, which addressed the issue of “the insidious costs of moving so relentlessly and at such high speeds”, where senior business leaders discussed the importance of time to contemplate and meditate.

My view on the Forbes comment about coordination replacing planning is that it omits the fact that to coordinate also needs time. We need to start challenging the current views about pace and activity. It would be nice if companies started instituting practices, such as Google’s chill rooms, to encourage more contemplation time.

Need an antidote for speed? In his 2012 article, Tony Schwartz suggested the following to help you slow down:

  • Designate one meal when you will take the time to notice the aroma, flavor, and texture of what you’re eating.
  • Curl up in a favorite chair after work and spend at least a half-hour reading a book purely for pleasure.
  • Take the time to really listen to someone you love, without interruption, for as long as it takes.
  • Choose a place that interests you and spend a couple of hours just exploring it without any specific end in mind.
  • Reflect before you go to bed and write in a journal what you are grateful for that day, and what went right.
  • Above all, slowly build more strolling, dawdling, moseying, meandering, musing, lingering, relishing, and savoring into your life.
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One thought on “Contemplation is important

  1. Simon – I thought your post on contemplation nailed a key aspect of digital noise and the speed of pings. This quote you cited sums it to me: “Speed is the enemy of depth, nuance, subtlety, attention to detail, reflection, learning, and rich relationships — the enemy of much, in short, that makes life worth living.” YES. And picking up on some of the themes on “differentiating work,” speed can also be the enemy of the creative cycle. To me, the best work of impact, whether it’s an app, an poem, or a kickass blog post, comes out of a creative cycle that includes: 1. deep listening/reading of others in the field and outside views, 2. Contemplation (letting many diverse inputs “stew,”, and then 3. Immersive creation. 4. Sharing that work, and debating/interacting around it to advance the dialogue. Social has a role to play in connecting to the right folks in phase 1, but then comes the importance of unplugging for the next two aspects. While others are distracted and regurgitating noise and other people’s links, the spoils – and fulfillment – will go to those who unplug.

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