No Time to Think

Perhaps ‘the’ most tantalising allure of any advancement in engineering or technology through the ages has been the promise of saving us time. Cars, trains and planes certainly get us places faster than horses ever did. Bridges and tunnels allow us to take short-cuts over rivers and through mountains, saving us hours. Advances in IT and robotics mean that tasks previously handled manually have been automated with exponential levels of increased productivity.

Why, with so much technology and time-saving gadgetry at our fingertips, do people still present at coaching sessions with issues and concerns about their ability to manage their time? After all, our lives have never appeared to be more organised ~ or perhaps I should say digitised!   More and more of us are hooked up to the Net from morning to night.

Our smartphones and tablets wake us up, we check our diary for appointments and read our messages before getting out of bed. We catch up on missed shows on iPlayer or Stitcher while we commute to work. We juggle collaborating on Sharepoint, with watching company Webcasts, while occasionally dipping into our personal Instagram, Twitter or WhatsApp accounts. We may even check in on Foursquare while grabbing lunch, and be just as likely to choose where to go by WiFi availability as the quality of the food. On the way home we might burn some carbs, having gained access with our fingerprint or iris, which are digitised on the gym’s customer database. We immediately wire ourselves up to the screens on the machines so as to catch up on news, or check Facebook activity.  And when we get home, after a microwaved dinner, and a quick skype chat with your mum, our relaxation and wind down time may well include logging on remotely to your work’s email to ‘finish off’ a few things, and give yourself a fighting chance of making a clean start on things again in the morning (fat chance!).

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From Curiosity to Attention

“You had my curiosity. But now you have my attention.”                                              as spoken by Leonardo DiCaprio’s character (Calvin Candie) in the move ‘Django Unchained’

“Be curious” is a very popular term used widely within the coaching fraternity.  It is of course great advice, as it encourages people to ‘simply notice’, without judgement, and with an open questioning mind. Being curious helps raise self-awareness. It also encourages one to consider and reflect on things that may otherwise go unnoticed. However, merely ‘being curious’, in itself, is unlikely to create the sufficient mental conditions for significant learning and change to occur. To achieve this, generalised curiosity needs to be cranked up to a state of sharply focused ‘attention’.

Being curious is the equivalent to being a casual ‘observer’ of the game. Having focused attention requires you become completely ‘immersed’ in the game.

source ackowledgement: crit365.com

source acknowledgement: crit365.com

I have touched on this subject many times in the past, most notably in Slow Down, you Move too Fast.  Before getting to agreements that something needs done about a problem, and long before specific actions are decided upon, it is vital that high levels of attention are shone on the issue. People simply do not agree to take action on situations unless they first of all recognise that it is important enough to do so, and that there are high enough stakes at play to make it worthwhile. Continue reading

Slow Down, you Move too Fast

“Slow Down, you Move too Fast”… so go the wise words of Simon & Garfunkel’s “59th Street Bridge Song” ……

Many people are inclined to jump to action rather quickly.  After all, isn’t this what people feel they are being paid for? To make decisions, to be decisive, to act !

Acting, in my experience, is rarely the biggest problem we face within our boardrooms, executive groups and operational teams. Our businesses and organisations are replete with people who plan, manage tasks, monitor activities, schedule, organise and control. I don’t sense that we need to build more skill in these areas.

The bigger challenges that face our business leaders are in the quality of conversations they undertake, their depth of problem analyses, and their ability to reach universal agreements on what actually needs to be done to bring about the major changes that will transform our businesses and organisations to turnaround their fortunes.

People tend to “over-analyse” the detail (or the parts we are most comfortable with) and avoid  tackling the real, hard, knotty issues. As teams, our conversations, seldom focus in on the major issues that would bring about significant and transformational change.

We tend not to bring sufficient attention to the most significant issues. After all, it is easier to focus on the trivia, or those issues that are most comfortable to discuss.  Bringing attention to significant issues is, after all, risky. We risk upsetting people, we risk our reputation, we risk being alienated if no-one else supports us, and we risk upsetting the status quo.

As a result, true agreement is rarely reached to the extent that it is clarified, confirmed and restated to everyone’s level of unambiguous satisfaction. How many meetings have you come away from where people start initiatives to resolve what they believe is the ‘agreed’ issue, but which is, in reality, subject to their own individual perspective?  This typically results in duplication of effort, conflicting initiatives, confusion and frustration.

Our organisations are action-generating machines,creating an illusion of efficiency, and productivity. Down the line, the most significant issues, which, if addressed and tackled, would result in radical change and improvement, remain untouched, lurking in the shadows in corners of meeting rooms around the globe (the proverbial elephant in the room?).

Here is a simple step by step guide – “The 4 As” –  to help leaders navigate Continue reading

Do we need more than ‘just’ attention to learn?


I don’t believe we learn “simply by attending”….there’s more to it than that. It’s got something to do with integration and synthesis and making ‘new connections’ (resulting in new neural pathways). It is these new connections that we know as “Aha moments” – when things suddenly become crystal clear. This is captured well in my view by John Nelson in the book “What color is your parachute? For retirement(2007)”. He talks about the “sea of information out there and the difficulty of making sense of it all. It splashes around with no sense of order. It is also relentless – like a fire hose that forever is trying to fill you up as though you were an empty barrel.” Where he takes this metaphor next is the notion that it is “at the confluence of the information stream and your own stream of consciousness, that you’ll make your best decisions”. I would add that it is when you are paying attention to the confluence of streams of information that you “make connections” and where most learning takes place.

Reflection and Learning


The importance of Reflection is clear. This is where LEARNING happens. For reflection to be successful the reflector needs to be open to his espoused theory and theory-in-use gap being exposed and crawled over. I suspect that many people may retrospectively “close this gap” (cognitive dissonance?) and thereby not acknowledge it. Doing this closes the door to learning. This is where the power of the techniques used and espoused by Chris Argyris come through – the power of disorienting people and leaving them feel exposed ‘in practice’. This then opens things up for learning. i.e. by Shining a Light or Focusing Attention sharply on the area.

Read more about Chris Argyris and his double-loop learning theories by clicking on the title of this blog post.

Is the Internet changing the way our brains work?


According to an article in Newsweek (Monday Jan 18th 2010) the answer is no. But, it may be altering the way we think.

Shortened attention span. Less interest in reflection and introspection. Inability to engage in in-depth thought. Fragmented, distracted thinking. These are all ways that the Internet supposedly affects thought. 109 philosophers, neurobiologists, and other scholars were asked “How is the Internet changing the way you think”.

The general consensus of scholars who study the mind and the brain is that the Internet hasn’t changed the way we think. Neuroscientist, Joshua Greene of Harvard, argues that it has provided us with unprecedented access to information, but hasn’t changed what our brains actually do with it. Cognitive psychologist, Steven Pinker of Harvard, is equally uncertain that any fundamental changes have happened. “Texters, surfers, and twitterers have not trained their brains to process multiple streams of novel information in parallel, as is commonly asserted but refuted by research”.

And yet, many scholars do believe the Internet alters thinking. Howard Rheingold (a Communications expert) believes the Internet fosters shallowness and distraction, with the result that our minds struggle to discipline and deploy attention in any concerted way. It is also argued that the Internet is causing the disappearance of retrospection and reminiscence. Evgeny Morozov, an expert on the Internet and politics, claims that our lives are increasingly lived in the present, completely detached even from the most recent of the pasts.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (the author of the work on Flow – referenced and discussed elsewhere in this Blog) argues that since online information is often decontextualized it satisfies immediate needs at the expense of deeper understanding, resulting in more superficial thought. With facts (whether true or false) only a click away, the Internet allows us to know fewer facts, reducing their importance as a component of thought. But that increases the importance of other components such as correlating facts, distinguishing between important and secondary matters, knowing when to prefer pure logic and when to let common sense dominate.

In other words, more than ever, we need to apply judgement to what is important and what is not. I don’t believe this is fundamentally different to what has gone before (apart from in terms of volume). All sources of information are subject to interpretation, and are conveyed through the filter of someone’s brain. Judgement will become an ever more critical skill; but our brains, our thinking, and the way we process information, is tried and trusted and will serve us well.

Attention is at the heart of everything


Attention is the answer to most things. It seems to have been a common theme that I just keep coming back to. My PhD studies were essentially about attention. I studied the effects of attention and predictive accuracy. Basically, when things were less predictable, subjects attend more to try to work out what is going on so that they can reduce the level of uncertainty they are experiencing. Now, in business and leadership development, I promote the significance of attention in focusing on the ‘real work’, the issue that needs to be tackled in order to change things.

Now, this week, I was reading through some of the research work being done by my daughter Beth. She studies Sports Psychology (like father like daughter!) and is working on models such as conscious process hypothesis (CPH) and attentional threshold hypothesis (ATH). What I can ascertain is that when people focus in on aspects of a complex task (such as a golf swing, or a high jump technique), their performance can be impaired due to the fact that they have lost the ‘flow’ of the process. Better to think about things holistically than specifically. So, in golf, it is better to think swing easy, or relax, rather than on specifics like straighten your arm, snap your wrist etc.

I am running my first marathon in 2 weeks time. This is really timely assistance to me. I will try to avoid thinking about my knee, my ankle, my calf, my heart, my lungs or any individual piece of my running action. Instead I will concentrate on the ‘Big Picture’. The achievement, the atmosphere, feeling good, the reward at the end and so on. Bring it on !!!!