Slowing Down to Go Farther, Faster

This article was originally published by Forbes here

“Pay attention!”

I can’t be the only one who, as a student, received this occasional reprimand from teachers. Sitting in a classroom for what felt like hours on end listening to the droning of a lecture that had no relevance to my life, it couldn’t be helped that my mind would wander. Faced with something as boring as the periodic table (no offense, chemists, I’m sure you would have encountered the same in a marketing class), my brain would create new worlds that were vastly more entertaining.

I recently had the opportunity to speak to college students at my alma mater about leadership. It was an amazing experience. I don’t think I have addressed college students since I was, well, in college. I had to think a lot about how to position content that I usually share with business leaders in a way that would be relevant to 20-year-olds.

A few days prior to my trip, as I was preparing my remarks for the students, my assistant walked into my office to ask me something. After standing there for a moment with no reaction from me, she said, “Hello?”

I was startled and realized I had been staring out the window, oblivious to her entrance. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you.”

I get this from my wife often. She tells me that sometimes it’s like a switch in my head just turns off, and I am non-responsive, and she can tell I’m thinking.

The interaction with my assistant caused me to consider this habit of mine. I realized that, often, these moments of pure inaction are when my most creative thoughts occur. It seems that when I am so totally focused on something and most able to dream up new ideas, the process renders me physically unable to do anything else.

These times are powerful and valuable. They allow for deep introspection and contemplation. They allow for the replay of past events and forecast scenarios to come. They help me determine paths to be chosen and those to avoid.

As I considered all of this, the sad realization hit me that I daydream much less than I used to. If times of deep thought are so valuable, why don’t I do it more often?

I was thinking about all of this as I headed off to speak with the college students. I addressed several classes, and it was in one of them that I observed something that at first bothered, then entertained, then enlightened me.

I was giving a lecture in one of those classic college classrooms where the students are on risers, and the teacher is at the bottom of the room. As I was speaking, I noticed that a student in the center of the room and at eye level with me was on his phone and not even pretending to pay attention. No notebook open and no pen to take notes. He was kicked back and totally engrossed in whatever was on his phone at that time.

At first, I was irritated. Here I had flown all the way out to volunteer my time, and he couldn’t even pretend to pay attention. But slowly, my irritation gave way, and it became kind of a funny game. I wondered if he could keep it up the whole time. Maybe if I looked at him while I spoke, he would feel my stare and glance up. Nope, it must have been a pretty great app. Ironic—I guess now I’m the one talking about the periodic table!

As I left the classroom, I thought about how I would have been in college if I had had a smartphone. Instead of sitting there bored during chemistry, I could be chatting with friends or reading about the NFL draft.

And that is when it hit me. That’s what I do today. Instead of sitting and being bored to the point that my mind wanders, I constantly fill it with a source of endless inputs. I rarely have a quiet moment because I have a continuing flow of things that interest me to stay occupied.

My point is not about the evils of smartphones. I can fill up my time with meetings or books or podcasts or hanging out with friends. My question is this: What are we missing by never allowing our minds to be quiet? If it is true that creativity often comes when we are still enough to allow our minds to wander, what creations has the world been deprived of because we are always moving? Or even scarier, if we never slow down enough to contemplate and introspect, what life-changing revelations are we missing about ourselves?

If you are a leader, I will encourage you to do a few things. First, schedule time to be unscheduled. Yes, this sounds strange. If you are like me, you have an unending list of demands on your time, and you could easily fill up your whole schedule with meetings and to-dos. Find times on your schedule when you can be alone (really alone—no email or texting either) and just think.

Second, enable and encourage those you lead to do the same. Fight the stigma that one must appear busy to be important. Make sure important things are allowed time for focused consideration. Give your people the space they need to reflect and create.

And finally, occasionally put down your phone.

I firmly believe that my best thoughts and ideas about my business—and my life—come when I am still enough to let them come. Paradoxically, we must slow down if we are to get faster, stronger and better.

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