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BLOG: Time to think

Mark Dixon | July 21, 2011
Stop and think for a moment. Yes, think. We don't do enough of it.

Think of all the time we spend chasing things, reacting to situations, allowing ourselves to be carried along by other people's schedules and priorities. How often do we say we are too busy to think about something now? And what does this ceaseless activity achieve? Often very little.

So let's think about the thinking process itself, how the brain works, and how we might make it work more quickly and efficiently.

The brain is not an object of predetermined size and shape that needs to be cajoled or stimulated into action. On the contrary, it is constantly changing shape. Every day, we refine our brains, developing the bits we find useful, strengthening those synapses, while forgetting things we find irrelevant, and letting those synapses die. This is great news for those of us who work in fast-changing businesses.

The challenge is to persuade people to retain and develop useful information, while letting go of the more sterile habits they may have picked up in previous jobs - like being attached to status, hierarchy and process. Since we are in business, not academia, we need speed of thought above all.

There are three areas of brain function to bear in mind: cognitive (the accumulation of knowledge); reflective (the ability to analyse that knowledge), and affective (how we react emotionally). Broadly speaking, we concern ourselves with the cognitive potential of our youngest employees, the reflective powers of our experienced staff, and the emotional well-being of all.

We need to work with the grain, to respect people and appreciate the way their brains work best. In general, older people tend to work better in the mornings, whereas younger people are more responsive later in the day. It makes sense, therefore, to hold board meetings in the mornings; and to run training or induction courses in the afternoon or evening.

Healthy lifestyle

We also need to think about lifestyle, because there is overwhelming evidence that brain function is enhanced by a healthy lifestyle. This means we should think about how people behave at work, and whether it is conducive to healthy living.

The traditional 20th century white-collar model, whereby employees would typically commute to an office to sit at their desks for eight hours a day, provided minimal mental, social or physical stimulation and did almost nothing for brain function. But in those hierarchical days, thinking was a privilege reserved for the few.

Nowadays, when we place so much emphasis on the importance of innovation, we need people to be constantly coming up with new ideas. That is why the modern workplace usually offers open spaces for meeting and talking, games areas for physical stimulation, and a more varied work schedule allowing for frequent consultation and changes of scene. It should also provide quiet areas for thinking.


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