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Switching off, or just mulling things over?

If you’re reading on a tablet or a phone, the opening lines of two recent Strategy + Business articles might raise an ironic smile. The first begins:

The “always on” nature of our society has generated a variety of warnings about the dangers of staying connected all the time.”

It proceeds to link backwards in time to the second, which begins:

Do you ever disconnect, even for just a few minutes? Think about the last time you used your “off button.”

If you haven’t already succumbed to temptation, you might however wish to read a third article: an interview with Loran Nordgren, in which “the cofounder of unconscious thought theory explains how taking a break and distracting the mind can lead to higher-quality decision making.” Perhaps you are already nodding in agreement – or perhaps your unconscious mind is silently thinking that you should.

An initial quote from the interview’s introduction provides a brief overview of his work, and explains how it might fruitfully illuminate a lot of current business behaviour:

Nordgren and his colleagues have sought a more deliberate way [than “It doesn’t matter what process we use to make decisions. Let’s just muddle through.”] to combine rational and intuitive decision-making processes. This makes the research inherently interdisciplinary; as Nordgren notes, it stands “at the intersection of experimental psychology, behavioral economics, and neuroscience.” The optimal approach they discovered, and confirmed through a long series of research studies, seems simple at first glance. They advise setting aside periods of time to let the unconscious parts of the brain process information. Go for a walk. Sleep on it. Turn off your attention. (Their most influential paper, published in Science in 2006, is called “On Making the Right Choice: The Deliberation-Without-Attention Effect.”) But putting the approach into practice, which has been the subject of Nordgren’s more recent research, requires some sophisticated and often counterintuitive design of the decision-making and strategy formation experience, and a unique way of thinking about (and welcoming) distraction.”

This links directly with work carried out in recent years in neuro-psychology, which has shown that distracting the brain away from repeated strain – for example, trying to solve a puzzle  – increases the level of oxytocin in the brain and enables us to work more quickly and more creatively. Worrying constantly and without pause at a problem does not guarantee any greater likelihood of solving it, as human capacity for conscious thinking is both limited and relatively easily exhausted. Our unconscious thinking capacity, however, is far greater, and we tend to underestimate the power of our unconscious memory. (Nordgren cites two examples by way of illustration: one explains that the first impression we assume that we consciously form of others is largely driven by unconscious assessments of their competence and inter-personal warmth, the other involves a fistfight with an amnesiac and defies summarising – please read the original interview.)

Nordgren’s research leads him to argue for an approach that abandons placing ourselves along a continuum with ‘rational analysis’ at one end and ‘intuition’ at the other, and to argue for a blended approach that combines our conscious and unconscious thinking to optimal effect. As he explains in the interview:

In general, people who spend time thinking over the options and studying them tend to do better than people who take no time, and who rely on an immediate gut feel. But a third group does better still. The best deciders study the information but then have their attention distracted. […]

If the amount of expertise is basically the same, then those who engage in an incubation process—conscious, rational study followed by distraction and delay, during which unconscious processing kicks in—outperform those who just analyze. The unconscious is simply better at aggregating all the pros and cons associated with a decision, and dealing with that complexity.”

Yet these, interestingly, are also among the basic principles of coaching.  A coach will work with a person to explore the obvious solutions that have already come to mind and the person will – then through reflection, creativity and personal insight – identify the alternative that is most effective. The final choice may indeed be a refinement or remodelling of the initially-considered alternatives, and offer greater chance of subsequent effectiveness.

Similarly much like coaching, Nordgren and colleagues’ findings show that forcing a person to disengage from the conscious thought process after a period of analysis and understanding is the most effective way to arrive at the best decision – especially if the distraction is for them to deliver against a goal (ie make a decision within a timeframe). The conscious thinking and processing that a single six-hour coaching session demands is far less likely to be fruitful than six individual hour-long sessions that allow time for reflection – and the ‘distraction’ of everyday working life – in the meantime.

What particularly interested me in reading the interview were a) Nordgren’s belief that constructively combining the powers of conscious and unconscious thinking is the optimum way forward, and b) parallels that I saw with both ‘the creative processes’ and with what – at risk of causing offence – we might just call common sense.

The first example that follows may seem to be creative in that it comes from a memo that was originally called “How to Write”. But it was written by David Ogilivy: not just a creative mind and advertising legend, but also a very successful one. His list contained ten numbered points, but it’s number 7 that is the most apposite:

7. Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning—and then edit it.”

This separation – between ‘acting’ and ‘mulling’ – turns up in the advice of other writers too. Consider, for example, one of John Steinbeck’s Six Tips on Writing:

2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.”

While this might suppose that the ‘creative’ approach means unconscious thinking first, with conscious thought to follow, the advice doesn’t always follow this pattern. Some would suggest creating a first draft and then ignoring it – Nordgren’s deliberate distraction in different form – for as long as life or external deadlines allow. Returning to it, having perhaps not entirely forgotten in the meantime, we can then – like Ogilivy’s memo – see more clearly where a wiser, clear-eyed person might now chose to make amends.

These parallels with disciplines other than business (if indeed it has earned that title – see our review of Adrian Woolridge’s Masters of Management) are more than whimsy on my part: they are also part of Nordgren’s argument and interest. As he says in the interview:

I got my Ph.D. in psychology and had never considered joining a business school faculty, but there has been a movement at Kellogg to bring in people from other disciplines: social network theory, sociology, “big data” analysis, and so on. Once you’re there, you find the connections to business. I think it’s a great way to bring new ideas into the MBA curriculum.”

At risk of repeating another previously-made point – that business always takes place in the community, as what other context can it possibly have? – this approach seems welcome: if business is a discipline, and is to mature as one, the learning it might find beyond its own walls may be a critical route to important insights. In the meantime, allow me the liberty of summarising Nordgren’s response when asked what he sees as some of the most common mistakes of business leaders when making decisions or driving others to do so:

  • forcing a decision to be made right after the discussion, as opposed to pausing for delay and distraction
  • placing too great an emphasis, before a decision is made, on the need you will have to justify your rationale to others (instead, allow people to make a general evaluation and then talk about their reasons afterward)
  • not having clear, explicit goals for any decision that everyone agrees is important
  • overlooking sleep. […] We’ve done interesting studies where we look at how well people organise all their different ideas. After sleep and periods of unconscious thought, ideas seem to take more orderly shape.

If that’s all a little too much to believe today, why not see how it seems tomorrow morning?

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