To See What’s in Front of One’s Own Nose Needs a Constant Struggle – Or Does It?

I can’t think hard and communicate (send email, sit in meetings, talk on phone, etc.) at the same time. Either I’m reacting and communicating, or I’m pausing, reflecting, thinking.

For people whose livelihood depend on constant communication with others (CEOs with many employees, or start-up entrepreneurs who live in the trenches and obsess over minutia) I ask them, “When and where do you find time to think?”

The answers vary.

Some can do what I cannot which is think deeply and communicate those thoughts in real time. Whereas the contemplative mind, for me, suffocates under a barrage of communication, for some it’s a fertilizer of sorts, the 24/7 “always-on” environment positively affecting their ability to think original thoughts, reflect on larger trends, and so forth. Others block off chunks of time to “unplug” and try to make sense of the chaos they just went through.

Andrew Sullivan is an example of the first case — a public intellectual and journalist who blogs 20+ times a day, often simple quick links or pithy bon mots. For him, I would guess his larger themes emerge in real-time from the thousands of data points he communicates each week. Niel Robertson, a successful technologist, is the opposite. He posts very infrequently but when he does they are long and clearly the result of a thoughtful pause and reflection. I’m guessing his style is to communicate like crazy with his team, read bits and pieces of posts and articles and news headlines 17 hours a day, and in general embrace the chaos that is today’s connected world…and leave the deep thinking to scheduled moments.

Me? I’m in the middle. Each week I live in chaos, sending and receiving hundreds of emails a day, reading thousands of news articles or blog posts each week, reading a book or two a week, and meeting new faces and old over meals. In the evenings or on the weekends, when there’s less going on, I budget time to read, write, and generally reflect. I do value Orwell’s line that “to see what’s in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,” but I also find it hard to engage in this struggle on a daily basis.

How do you deal with this tension?

4 comments on “To See What’s in Front of One’s Own Nose Needs a Constant Struggle – Or Does It?
  • While I agree that the frenetic pace of life often demands sliding across tasks in quick alternations, it’s been proved that shifting mental gears cost time, especially when shifting to less familiar tasks. It’s also a question of relative importance, demand for quality, presentation etc., since output from each successive task so shifted also suffers considerably on those lines.

    The interrelated cognitive processes, by rote – establish priorities among tasks and allocate the mind’s resources to them. For each aspect of human performance — perceiving, thinking and acting — people have specific mental resources whose effective use requires supervision through executive mental control.

    A mere half second of time lost to task switching can mean the difference between life and death for a driver using a cell phone, because during the time that the car is not totally under control, it can travel far enough to crash into obstacles the driver might have otherwise avoided. Worse, if you’d imagine an Air traffic controller getting distracted while guiding multiple flights.

    When friends tell us how deftly they manage to take customer calls even as they are at the wheel, whisper a silent prayer for them and do tell them to slow down.

  • Ben,
    This is a great post and something I find myself struggling with. I’m starting to come to the conclusion that ‘think’ time is kind of like going to the gym. It doesn’t happen unless times are set aside and religiously ahered to. It may become habitual and flexible later, but to first establish it, there must be a schedule.

    One problem is that creativity can’t always be scheduled, but I try to get around this by keeping notes of little ideas that come up during the week. It’s also hard to pull away from the firehose of information that is offered all around.

  • Ben,

    As always, a good post. I think I find myself with you. I struggle thinking deeply about topics that I’ve just engaged in and I usually make the mistake of trying to be intelligent while communicating – generally a bad thing for me. I think people have widely varying abilities to communicate and think simultaneously and this ability appears to be independent of overall intelligence (at least I hope it is).

    It seems that the important point here – to me – is that one recognize what type of person they are and to what level they can communicate and think simultaneously. Opportunity for success is independent of this ability, so it’s simply how it’s managed that matters.

  • Given the fact that so many people can’t talk and drive well at the same time, I recommend a total ban on phone use while driving.

    Even the Italians, who are among the most voluble people on earth, and some of its most aggressive drivers, wag their fingers at offenders who use a cell phone while driving (it’s illegal in Italy).

    If it’s any consolation, when you’re as old as me, you don’t have to think as hard anymore to get the same results.;-)

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