As things speed up in this age of acceleration, paradoxically, for leaders to continue to perform at a high level, one necessity is to learn to slow down. This means, quite literally, learning to interrupt the operation of our very fast, unconscious mind to take the time and create the space needed to overcome habitual behaviours and encourage creativity.
To achieve this, we need to learn to respond—to choose, intentionally, where to focus our attention and effort, rather than having this happen “on automatic”. We need to be able to put aside memories of past experience and stories we’ve created about future possibilities in favour of present moment awareness.
By doing so we’ll be able to reduce the pull that the external environment has on our mind, so that we become less reactive to stimuli and more able to avoid the seductive allure of the many distractions that surround us. Then, our behavioural flexibility and creativity will start to increase.
Reacting vs. Responding
Imagine a situation where someone tells us that they think we are an idiot. A typical reaction would be to become offended, get angry and then to fire some sort of insult back – a choice, albeit an unconscious one, which will rarely produce desirable results.
Now, what if I’ve learnt to regulate my behaviour more effectively: on feeling the flush of anger, with a bit of practice I might find that I can take an intentional pause. I will then have more chance of taking a considered approach that won’t inflame the situation.
There is a critically important and useful distinction between these two cases. In both, we would typically be said to have reacted. However, the difference between the two is as stark as night vs. day. The first type of behaviour is reactive, while the second can be more accurately described as responsive:
- Reactivity is when we are largely or wholly unaware of the main drivers of behaviour or decisions. The result is a set of habitual thoughts and behaviours that cause us to act impulsively to distractions and triggers, which can rule huge areas of our lives and make change extremely difficult.
- Responsiveness is when we interrupt the automatic nature of unconscious thoughts and behaviour to consider other alternatives and make new choices that we’ve not tried in the past.
The Dangers of Reactivity
Some of our reactive patterns are simply mental habits—learned ways of thinking that we’ve practiced so often that they no longer require conscious thought. Others can take the form of what are called heuristics—mental shortcuts that allow us to solve problems and make judgments quickly and efficiently.
Both these methods of thinking hugely reduce the amount of effort and time that would otherwise be required to determine our next course of action. It would be impossible to operate in the world without them.
Because of our mental shortcuts we are able to handle routine actions and events almost effortlessly. The problem though, is that they make it impossible to know what assumptions were made in reaching our conclusions. Worse, when we are wrong, there is no mental “red flag” to warn us, so we feel exactly the same as when we are right. And to compound the problem further, it is hard to recognise errors because everything happens so quickly and thoughtlessly.
To date, dozens of heuristics have been identified, and everyone has innumerable mental habit patterns. They create inertia that tends to lock us into our habitual behaviours, inevitably introducing unconscious biases and unexplored assumptions that can wreck the reliability of our decision making.
We are also motivated to prefer to rely on habits for a simple biological reason – it takes much more energy to think. Since we are wired to conserve energy, we will naturally prefer not to think unless we have to!
The combination of these two factors – the speed with which reactions take place, and the unconscious preference to minimise our use of energy – has the result that many people rarely, if ever, take a step back to explore whether their old patterns still serve them. Even fewer (estimated to be well under 5% of the overall population) have the willingness and ability to do so on a consistent basis. But, as with the development of any area of proficiency, the more you practice, the better at it you will become.
The Challenge of Learning to Respond
To overcome automatic reactivity – an essential requirement in a world where rapid technological change and turbulent market environments are the norm – leaders must cultivate the ability to respond in a more thoughtful way. This is much more difficult than it might sound because of the difference in the speeds of operations of the two parts of the brain involved.
For example, why do you think it is that we instinctively startle watching a scary movie, even if we’ve seen it before? The answer is that the conscious knowledge and anticipation of an upcoming shocking event doesn’t allow us to override the rapid and automatic activation of our fight/flight system. When something happens that triggers an automatic reaction, we will tend to have acted before we’ve had time to think.
Because of this speed differential, habitual behaviours can be hard to change. To make it worse, it is even more difficult when we are stressed because of the way that the fight/flight system suppresses activity in the part of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex, which enables rational thought.
If there isn’t time to consciously make new choices when we get triggered into action, and stressors only make the problem worse, what can we do?
This has always been an important question for anyone wanting to gain greater control over their internal and external lives. But it has been magnified recently because of the accelerating change we are all facing. For leaders, in particular, the more this trend progresses, the more creative, adaptable and able to handle stressors we need to become in order to continue to function effectively.
The solution is simple, but not easy: to learn to create the mental space necessary for old habits to be identified and overcome, allowing creative new approaches to be developed in their place.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”
The greater our ability to create an interrupt during the short interval between the brain sending a signal to initiate action and the action taking place, the more responsive we’ll become. Ultimately, a few people such as Buddhist monks, many of whom have developed this capability to extreme levels, have proven that it is possible to reach a point where there is no reactivity left at all.
For most of us, such a lofty goal is a long way away, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t benefit enormously from greater awareness of those impulses that might lead to undesirable results. The more we grow this awareness, the more we’ll gain the ability to both look at how our thought creates our experience of reality and to respond in a less automatic, more flexible way.
In principle, this is not hard to achieve: we need to learn to slow down enough that we can engage our conscious mind and use it interrupt the cycle that leads to habitual actions. Initially, it isn’t so much about choosing a new action as vetoing the impulse and creating the space to do nothing. In other words, it is isn’t really about will power. Rather, it requires what David Rock, the Director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, calls “won’t power”.
Pausing for Thought
The first requirement for building won’t power is to be able to recognise when we are moving into reactivity. By far the most useful warning sign that enables us to do this is a negative emotion being triggered. From brain studies, we know that such emotions will suppress our ability to think rationally, regulate emotions, be creative, empathise with others, and make effective decisions, as well as a host of other higher-level human capabilities.
The practical starting point is to develop the ability to keep a portion of our attention on our inner emotional world. It is a form of intentional attention that stays alert for the first sign of a negative emotion. As we do so, we’ll build the emotional self-awareness which is at the heart of emotional intelligence. This enables us to notice the need to slow down, which then enables us to choose not to act – to exercise our won’t power.
By deliberately introducing a pause between any external trigger and our action in this way, we can create the space necessary to regulate emotions – one of the most important emotional intelligence capabilities. This creates the space to consider alternative options.
Breathing offers a remarkably powerful way, probably the simplest one I know, by which we can centre ourselves enough to do this.
Research has shown that it can take as little as five seconds of conscious, deep breathing to short-circuit even the ‘neural highjack’ which occurs when our threat response is triggered. If you can maintain this type of breathing a little longer, just 20 seconds has been found to allow the brain to reorganise itself and for there to be an increase in activity in the frontal lobe. This then automatically improves attention, emotion regulation, creativity and decision-making, which will enable you to find a more adaptive, appropriate and evolutionary solution to whatever problem you are facing—a small inner shift which can result in huge external changes.
By practicing intentional attention in this way, we can predictably and reliably learn to slow down and reduce our reactivity. As a direct consequence, we will develop the responsiveness, flexibility and adaptability needed to handle our fast-changing fast world
Slow down …. and watch your performance improve.