The Speed of Thoughts
“For one hour, twice a day, secure a quiet place and time to let your thoughts be processed freely.”
First, let us define the term we are going to discuss in this Insight.
A “thought” is any stimulus that gets the attention of your mind. When we say, “It crossed my mind,” the “it” could be an idea, a problem, a concern – anything that you spend time processing in your head.
Now, imagine that thoughts are like runners. In the following analogy, there is a marathon race in which many runners compete. Each one runs at a different speed. Some of these runners weigh less and run faster than others. These are the lightweight problems, tactical in nature, that are not too demanding of our processing capabilities.
Others are messengers who carry gold in their backpacks, thus cannot run very fast. These are the thoughts of a strategic nature, which consume a lot of emotional energy to deal with but are more valuable than the tactical ones.
A runner that arrives at the finish line becomes an item for action. This action could be: to discard the thought, which in our analogy would be to disqualify the runner and take him out of the race; to file the thought for future consideration, which would be like sending the thought back into the race; or to declare the thought a winner and act on it – i.e., make a decision about it for implementation.
Assume that this marathon race has a four-hour time limit, after which the race is over. Any runners who didn’t reach the finish line will have to sit on the side of the road and wait for the next marathon to begin.
Now, imagine that the racing committee has other things to do and suddenly stops the race without any advance notice, announcing that the race will be resumed at some point in the future, when time allows. But since the committee is increasingly busy with other time-consuming endeavors, it keeps halting the race sooner and sooner, and resuming it less and less frequently (in other words, there is less and less uninterrupted time in which to think).
Under such conditions, who will arrive at the finish line? Only the lightest runners, i.e., those who make mostly tactical decisions – because the gold runners, those who make the strategic decisions, have no chance to get to the finish line: either the time was too short or too many lightweight runners blocked the route to the finish line.
What is happening in this parable?
Because the race closes earlier and earlier and resumes less and less frequently, the runners with the gold (the strategic thinking) are never able to reach the finish line and deliver the gold. Strategy is addressed less and less often.
There is more to this analogy. Assume that the racing committee focuses on one particular runner during the entire race, ignoring all the other runners and thus giving this runner preferential treatment. Others who are carrying gold on their backs are ignored, while this runner gets all the attention, even if he is not the most promising one: Perhaps he just happened to be noticed first, or is making the most noise (“the squeaky wheel …).
That is how our minds work: We pick up one thought – usually the most annoying one, not necessarily the most promising or valuable one – and get “attached” to this thought, giving it all our attention while other, more value-adding thoughts have no chance to draw our attention. Only later, maybe years later, do we recognize that we ignored the “gold-carrying messengers,” and then we lament; “I should have thought more about that one.”
Because we are all increasingly busy with more and more short-term pressures that we feel we must address, there is less and less time to think; or, in my analogy, to open the race for other thoughts to advance. The simple, tactical, most pressing decisions take all the limited energy we have. As a result, strategic decisions never get addressed: The gold-carrying messengers do not arrive.
The exception is if we happen to get sick and are bed-ridden; then, because we are forcibly idle, the race will resume and those thoughts will start arriving.
Periodically falling sick, however, is not the most desired solution.
What to do?
There are two solutions: one personal and the other professional.
On a personal level: Make it a ritual, a habit, that twice a day, sunrise and sunset, you dedicate time to thinking – not doing, just thinking. Give this an hour each time: one hour, twice a day. Secure a quiet place and time to let your thoughts be processed freely, without any interruptions whatsoever: No phones. No e-mail. No TV or music. No one asking you or telling you anything. Give yourself the present of being alone with yourself and your thoughts, serving yourself for a change, rather than others, as you have been doing all day long.
In the analogy, this is like resuming the race no matter what, no matter how busy you might be, and making sure it continues to the finish line.
You say you cannot find the time? OK, but if that’s true, you need to realize that you are not managing the problems of your life; it is the problems that are managing you! You are not in control; you are simply reacting to events, and this will not serve you well. If you have to wait until you get sick to find the time to think and make your strategic decisions, it may already be too late.
Having reserved time for your thoughts, make sure to notice them all; do not get attached to any one thought in particular at this stage. Just observe and let all the slow runners reach your consciousness. In other words, do not judge yet, in this quiet time, which idea is the gold-bearer and which the lightweight. Make no judgments. Pay attention to all the runners.
You will notice that as soon as you reach your quiet place and relax your mind, the race begins; you do not have to make an official announcement to your mind that the race is on. As you close your eyes, as you take a deep breath and relax, the thoughts will start pouring in, leapfrogging over each other as if they have been waiting a long time for this opportunity to start moving. They won’t need any prodding. Just remember not to get attached to any single thought, to any single runner. At this stage you cannot know which are the most valuable or important. As far as you are concerned, they should all have an equal chance to reach the finish line; only then will you be able to see which ones are carrying the gold.
Your mind will wander from one idea to another. Good! Do not find this disturbing. Your mind is just doing its job, which is to present all the runners to you, so that you know what is happening.
Make an affirmation to yourself when you start this practice, that you will have no expectations for what this quiet time will produce, i.e, which idea will win, if any. Basically, stop wishing and let be. That gives all your ideas a chance to advance. Do not give preferential treatment to any one thought in particular. No judgments. No prejudice. Just let be.
With no wishful thinking and nothing to focus on, the race is wide open, the road is clear, and there is nothing to hinder the runners from advancing. All will be acknowledged, and none will monopolize the limited energy available to process as many thoughts as may come up.
You will be surprised at how many great ideas will occur to you – how many solutions to your problems will effortlessly arrive, and how easily you will see what is going on and what you should do.
After a while, your quiet, uninterrupted time will allow you to feel a peacefulness and clarity you have rarely, if ever, experienced before – with no noise in your head, no sense of being preoccupied, of being incomplete. You will feel lighter, more confident, and more at peace with yourself.
Some people use drugs to enhance their creativity. That is also a way of extending “the race” and removing any barriers that prevented the “runners” from advancing. But drugs bring in all kind of racers who are not real athletes. They might be monsters dressed in sports clothes, who could take you to unexplored areas that might blow your mind – literally.
You do not need chemicals to process your thoughts freely, uninterruptedly, and creatively. Secure, uninterrupted quiet time, otherwise known as meditation, will give you better and cleaner benefits.
What about brainstorming as a team? Does that work?
Yes, but it only enhances the personal meditation; it does not focus on or help the team collect its thoughts.
Here is a process I recommend to all my clients in my consulting work:
Put together, in one place and at the same time, a team that jointly can solve a problem or accomplish a task. This should be an autonomous group that does not need anyone else to solve the task. They just need to agree among themselves – granted, not an easy task.
Everyone must arrive on time; if they do not, cancel the meeting. Schedule a time limit for the meeting: no less than three hours and no more than eight hours in any one day. Schedule a ten-minute break every eighty minutes, and observe it religiously.
During the first ten minutes of the meeting, each person, in turn, should say how s/he feels about the meeting that is about to take place. What they say is not important; what’s importance is that they say it, openly and honestly. I call this process “defreezing,” and its purpose is to integrate people’s minds with where their bodies are, to get them to begin opening up and speaking honestly. In our analogy, it is like bringing the runners to the starting line.
Now, accumulate ideas from the group – one idea at a time – going around and around from one person to the next until there are no more contributions or ideas to be offered. Do not discuss any of the ideas yet – no preferential treatment to any runner at this stage.
Next, organize the ideas into patterns, and then turn the patterns into a chain of causality, figuring out which pattern must be dealt with ahead of the others.
Now you have a plan of action.
What’s next? It is time to open the discussion to the first pattern of action.
Remember: All ideas are legitimate. There should be no prejudice. Sometimes a bad idea will upset people so badly that they’ll come up with a great idea in response to it.
As each idea is brought up, rank it as either a “need-to-do” action or a “nice-to-do” action.
Always have your breaks on time – even if you are in the middle of discussing the best idea since Jesus Christ fed a whole village with one fish. The mind needs a break. You will be surprised at how many ideas that seem to be unresolvable can be worked out, no sweat, after a ten-minute break.
Never extend the meeting past its prescheduled limit. It is in the extended meetings, when people are feeling a lot of time pressure, that most bad decisions get made.
Instead, postpone the rest of the discussion until the next scheduled meeting. Rome was not built in a day –if it had been, it would have been constructed on a foundation of sand and would soon have collapsed.