Personal Development
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This article as originally published on 11 March 04

Think smarter: giving your mind space to work effectively.

The world is a hectic place. We seem to need to work faster and faster. We try to work smarter, but sometimes we just end up working harder.

How easy it is to think that we just need to get our head down for a couple of weeks and clear the backlog. Just focus on those tasks and get them done. Getting your head down is a short-term strategy; it works in the short-term and it can feel very rewarding. But it's not where real change happens. Real change happens in the spaces between things. When our head is not down, but up... and looking around us.

Real change is the difference between dealing better with a crisis and not getting in the crisis in the first place. Why are we here, now, dealing with this stuff? What is it about how we deal with things that has got us here?

So you need to get your head up and give your mind some space. Well that's easier said than done. You're busy after all. And this isn't necessarily the easiest stuff to think about. What I want to offer here is an insight into how giving yourself some space helps solve problems and, based on that, some ways of using the time you have to best effect. Ways of thinking smarter, if you like.

Let's look at the reasons why this kind of thinking - thinking for real change - requires space.

Creating space
Firstly, we all have familiar patterns of decision-making and behaviour. Not necessarily good patterns or bad patterns. Psychologists tend to talk about preferences. The important thing is that under pressure these preferences come out. We're most comfortable doing what we've always done before. But if we're going to change that decision-making and behaviour, we're going to have to think differently. Exactly the thing we find very difficult to do under pressure.

Secondly, our emotional reactions are heightened under pressure. Emotion is a brilliant survival mechanism. It pushes us towards what needs to be done immediately, right now, when the chips are down. Things like getting oxygen to our muscles, running away from wild beasts, staying very still so we're not seen as a threat or screaming for help. It's not so immediately helpful for dealing with questions like what could I do better? Creating space means that do a bit more reasoning-about and a bit less reacting-to.

Thirdly, putting space around an incident means we can look at it more objectively. We can see what other people see and we can see how we performed in terms of what we're trying to achieve long-term. In essence, we can see it in context.

Once we understand this, these points can be used to guide review and reflection. They can be thought of as a series of questions:

1. Preferences
a) Where did I do things automatically, without thinking?
b) When did I think something like same old routine again, or when will they ever learn?

2. Reactions
a) When did I have particularly strong emotional reactions?
b) What did I want in that moment?

3. Context
a) What was my priority? What were other people trying to achieve?
b) If I had been really putting my long-term goals as top priority what would I do differently?

Of course, we can't create time and space. But we can avoid going round in circles. Giving ourselves space to think and using that space purposefully can help us to think smarter. The really neat thing is that the more you do it, the better you get at it.

This article is based on a paper titled 'Understanding the experience of experience: a practical model of reflective practice for Coaching' published this month in the International Journal of Evidence-Based Coaching and Mentoring. For subscription information visit

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