May 2004 Insight Newsletter

Thinking Effectively

Speaking with audiences recently at the Board of Trade, a management consultants group and an insurance institute, I regularly find myself saying the thinking element of being a leader or effective individual is our biggest challenge.

The higher you go in organizations, the more it helps to have a single, simple set of principles that you apply with practiced habit to each situation. Offering that is my goal. CEO’s and other senior executives face a mind-boggling array of challenges. To think up a new solution for each would be impossible. These people are called on for immediate decisions many times a day. Only developing a habit of using dependable skills in this area as well as for the other principles of success allows them to meet the deluge.

1. What It Takes To Think Effectively

“The whole function of thinking is but one step in the production of habits.” – William James, psychologist (…and vice versa, I’d say.)

Professor Peshe C. Kuriloff at University of Pennsylvania collects some great ideas about the thinking process in her book, Rethinking Writing. She points out that thinking is not linear, but circular. We revisit the same ideas many times, getting better with practice, just as with any habit. She notes it’s a very active process in which ideas do not appear fully formed in people’s minds, but grow little by little. It works best with some trial and error effort applied to them. The question is how to speed this up.

The answer is practice. While we depend on habit to guide more than 95% of our activities on any ordinary day, we have opportunities to practice thinking whenever we want. We can always look for, and will always find, better ways to do our daily routines.

Abe Lincoln was quoted as telling a story of two wood cutters. One asked how the other was able to cut more wood even though taking more frequent breaks during the day. The answer: on each break I sharpened my axe.

We’re often so busy today we don’t believe we have time to stop and think about how we’re working, how we’re going about managing the tremendous work demands. In fact, asking those questions is sharpening our axes.

A change is as good as a rest, they say. Instead of grabbing a coffee and ploughing ahead with twelve more voice mails, try taking a rest and casually thinking about HOW you’ve been working. Are you on the right tasks, have you set priorities before you started, are you making the progress, achieving the goals you expected? Why not? What would help? Perhaps delegating or actually dropping some project would make more sense. Who else could do this faster? Does it really need to be done?

When you first start these mini-reviews, you won’t feel comfortable. That’s because it isn’t habit yet. It takes a number of tries to get into a groove, but if you make just a bit of time to think, review and re-think, the effect overall is astounding.

2. Things to Help Thinking

Shunryu Suzuki, the famous Zen master transplanted to the United States, said, “Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine.” Can you tell he was addressing a North American audience looking for splashy solutions? Oddly, I find one great help is to read half a dozen quotations of any sort. I always find a few that bring me back to simple truths that make us more effective. Not every one, but within any small selection. I keep a couple of quotation books at hand for when I’m stuck and I collect quotes I like by cut and paste when I run across them on the Internet.

Part of the reason this works is it takes the mind away from the problem at hand for a couple of moments and allows thoughts to go off in another direction. The questions raised are the diversion you need to re-orient toward the problem you’re struggling with.

What I look for most is quotes that point to daily challenges of life we all face. It isn’t in the big problems that we need to be reminded to think, but in the small ones. And to think about the overall meaning more than details. These little snapshots into the minds of others who’ve struggled with similar puzzles rejuvenates tired thinking. We’re not so physically stressed today, except perhaps by lack of sleep, as we are emotionally and mentally tired. The brain almost instantly recovers interest and capacity from just a few moments diversion to some other realm.

3. A Few Places to Start

I’ve mentioned this site indirectly before for it’s excellent leadership section, which is often a helpful guide for any manager, but there are many subject areas that can provide equally valuable insights and breaks from the routine: Grant M “Bright Quotes”. Everyone ultimately finds their own diversions.

Just now I got a kick out of some of the speech bloopers part way down the “Humor” section. Was it worth the three minutes I spent “wasting time?” It was more of a break than reading a gloomy news report or other information. Ideas are invigorating. If nothing else at least I have a sense of not taking myself so seriously (as well as a sense of relief that every single odd comment I make isn’t being written down for posterity). And it gave me the hint to shut up while I’m ahead. Less can very often be more.