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“Madam, were you aware you were driving over the speed limit?”

“Err, sorry officer I didn’t realise.”

Oops. How many times do you find yourself driving too fast?

  1. Because you’re in a rush
  2. Because you’re running late
  3. Because you’ve a got a million things to do
  4. Because it’s the only way you’re going to get through the day
  5. Because you’re addicted to the adrenalin thrill of operating at top speed

The thing is, unless you’re Scott McLaughlin breaking a lap record at Mount Panorama while practicing for the Bathurst 1000, driving too fast has its hazards, especially when it comes to thinking.

Is there a safe limit for speed of thought?

It depends what you’re trying to achieve.

Our fastest neural circuits involve the startle reflex. That car backfire that causes you to jump means you’ve reacted before you’ve had the chance to work out what just happened.

Our response to danger is super fast, which is helpful and involves the amygdala that is involved in emotional processing. When you see or experience something that scares the living daylights out of you, the fight, flight or freeze response prepares you to deal with the immediate danger using your subconscious thought processes that are preprogrammed to help slow you down and keep you safe in a matter of milliseconds.

Conscious thought, by contrast, is slow. It takes time to weigh up the pros and cons and assess the information available. It makes us more accurate, so we make fewer unforced errors.

My parents used to own a wolfhound. “Wolfie” was lovely, but not the fastest thinking dog on the block. We used to joke how we could see his brain cells connecting with each other before he eventually decided on his next move such as a tail wag or walk towards his food bowl.

Daniel Kahneman explains how we use these two routes of thought, fast vs. slow to navigate and make sense of our world. The bottom line is that taking time out to slow down is good for better brain health and thinking.

Our problem is the expectation that everything has to be done fast. Time is money, others are waiting, and rivals are looking to gain a competitive advantage. We can’t afford to waste a moment of time, dilly-dallying about.

The question is what do we lose in this continuing quest for more speed?

  • Accuracy
  • Critical thinking
  • Creativity
  • A realistic appraisal of time
  • Situational awareness
  • The ability to listen
  • Mental energy
  • Adaptability

The trade off between speed and accuracy

There is more than a modicum of truth in the saying “more haste, less speed,” especially when it comes to decision-making.

Research from Oxford has identified two distinct mechanisms that control the balance for making optimal decisions. If a task is easy, and it’s important to make that decision fast, we can. If it’s more complex, the longer it takes us, and the greater the risk of making a mistake.

The researchers discovered that when greater accuracy is required, one network increases the amount of information needed before a decision can be reached whereas when time is short, the second network lowers this threshold so you can get to that decision faster.

This implies the brain is set up to enable us to choose whether speed or accuracy matter more for a given situation. What matters is to make that choice consciously rather than running around on autopilot all the time.

Is technology to blame?

Does it seem to you that time is passing by too quickly? How can it be that we are already in the third quarter of the year when it feels like Christmas was only yesterday?

In a previous blog I shared the research findings of Aiofe McLoughlin from James Cook University. She found that interacting with our technology for long periods of time is leading to the perception of time passing by more quickly, adding to our sense of time poverty.

But before you freak out and toss your mobile, this is really just a gentle reminder of the value of unplugging from our technology at regular intervals.

Other research has confirmed that our technology speeds up our rate of processing information. If you’re someone who loves playing action video games and have had to wear the brunt of criticism that playing too many video games of shooting zombies will turn you into one, read on.

Video games have been shown to develop improved hand-eye coordination and in another study gamers were found to be able to learn a new sensori-motor pattern faster than non-gamers, which could be an advantage in those areas where hand-eye coordination is especially important. A rather elegant study exploring the gaming habits of laparoscopic surgeons proved the point. Those surgeons who played video games for three hours or more on a regular basis made up to 37% fewer errors.

Now you know how to select which surgeon you want for your next laparoscopic procedure.

If you’re more than a little fed up with getting too many speeding tickets, the reward for slowing down include boosting your level of productivity while reducing stress levels, so you get more done, which makes you feel good and raises your level of happiness.

Five things to help slow thinking include:

  1. Prioritise and itemise the top three tasks that must be done today and ditch the rest. If it’s that important it will be in your top three. This automatically reduces stress because suddenly you only have three things to focus on.
  2. Choose to work on your tasks in chunks of focused time of up to 90 minutes and take a well-earned brain break in between for 10-15 minutes.
  3. Start each day with the most important meeting. The one you have with yourself to sit (or stand, or walk) to think things through in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed or interrupted.
  4. Choose to meditate. Beyond spending time in your thinking space as above, taking 5-30 minutes to allocate to being more mindful is a great way to quieten the mind and keep you in the present moment, rather than future planning or ruminating about the past.
  5. Get out of the office. Driving your brain hard all day long and putting in too many hours is the fast track to mental exhaustion and burnout. Take time out to reconnect with the world around you, engage all your senses and enjoy the pleasure of greater clarity, creativity
    and calm.

We can all think. What differentiates good thinking from great thinking is how much time we are willing to invest, to effectively slow our thinking down and restore the appropriate balance of automated vs. careful, considered, conscious thought.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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