I have thought about thinking many times. I have analysed how I think. I have thought well and I have thought badly. Although of course the difference between the last two is all down to the outcome of my decisions and actions after thinking. I have also thought – or rather realised – that I have developed a number of behaviours that help me think. Again – outcomes dictate whether these behaviours are successful. But I believe they are…based on my experiences.
The first is time. I consciously seek to give myself time to think. Sounds obvious, but it is not always easy to do. For example, Instant Messaging is a wonderful invention, but it requires – by definition – instant thinking. Comments are made, questions are asked and answers are given. Instantly. There is no time to think.
Face to face discussions are similar – no matter how many people are in the meeting. Thinking tends to be quick. In the moment. I know this but I don’t always help. The brief ‘thinking moments’ in meetings is why we all appreciate getting agenda topics in advance. It allows us to prepare mentally – in effect to start thinking about the topics early. I don’t always help since I am not good at sending out agenda topics early. My bad.
Email is many things. And we have all developed coping techniques. And my best one is time. I always (well nearly always) give myself time to think. The beauty of email is that replies are not expected immediately. And we can use this to help our thinking. If I ever get an email that provokes me, worries me, or just upsets me then I never respond. I never respond immediately. I give myself time.
I learned this one partly the hard way and partly by accident. The hard way was a realisation that there was seldom a good outcome if I gave a rapid response (based on rapid thinking) in these emotional moments. The accident was the realisation that one benefit of being based in the UK is that there are at least five hours every day when I am awake (and thinking) whilst my US colleagues are asleep (and dreaming).
Eventually I worked out that if I read an email first thing in the UK morning – an email that provoked an emotional response – that I had five hours to reply. An eternity. To breathe deeply, relax, work out, drink coffee, walk around the room, do other things…before I replied. And when I did this my thinking tended to be clearer, more balanced and outcomes of my reply were always improved. I also realised that sometimes this was nothing to do with better thinking. It was more to do with better reading. I often read and re-read the email in question and, on second or third view, I realise that I have scan-read – and miss-read – the first time around.
I experienced all of these moments this last week. A colleague and friend was in town all week. We met first thing every morning at work for coffee. In the moment, instantly, we reviewed the meaning of life, examined the future of mankind and considered how we could to make our people happier and our business more successful.
I also woke up to one or two of those emails each morning. Provocative or challenging. Complicated or worrisome. I read them all over my breakfast espresso and then sat on my exercise bike with my blackberry out of reach. I gave myself time…and always replied before my five hours were up.
Better thinking should give better outcomes…we will see.