Many professional development websites and coaches promise to accelerate your progress. While coaching has been proven to be effective in helping people reach their goals, the promise of acceleration plants an idea which is the opposite of what those people need.
Going 160 mph
Chances are, you are already going at a very fast pace. And there are at least two problems with going too fast: As you probably noticed, a very quick pace is exhausting — both physically and mentally. The consequence is that our productivity goes down, our mood tanks, and creativity goes out the window.
The second problem with moving fast is that it leaves us making most decisions on auto pilot. Using the terminology of the Nobel laureat Daniel Kahneman, we are relying on System 1 thinking when we don’t pause.1 (System 1 refers to a fast, automated, unconscious and intuitive processing, as opposed to System 2 which is significantly slower and more resource-intensive.) Even though System 1 can provide right answers, it can only do so fairly reliably if the problem falls into a regular and predictable environment which was mastered through prolonged practice.
Chances are, you are not only going fast, you are also making automatic decisions in situations full of variability which would benefit from slowing down to allow your analytical System 2 to take a critical look at what is really going on, so that you could chart the best path forward. Perhaps a path you have never taken — or even considered — before.
Accelerate or Slow Down?
The promise of accelerating progress is double-edged. The idea of accelerating is appealing, especially when you need to get somewhere faster. You are also less likely to question the wisdom of accelerating when your attention is already occupied by going fast. Because of these factors, the idea of slowing down will seem naïve at best.
A promise of speeding up gets people’s attention. At the same time, it primes them for behaviors that won’t help or might make things worse. Doing the same things faster is not an answer, except in the most rudimentary situations.
On the other hand, when we allow ourselves to slow down, we are likely to arrive at answers that are beyond the automatic thinking of System 1. Taking the time to recognize that each situation is different is useful. The solutions that worked for us in similar situations might not work in the new one because of subtle, or not so subtle, differences.
Discovering Paths to Success
To uncover new answers, it’s important to take time to look at things from different angles, and to ask questions that we haven’t asked ourselves before. Unfortunately, we prefer answering questions to which we already know the answers to, or to questions where System 1 easily extrapolates from what it knows.
This is where we run into two more problems. First, even when we try, we are unlikely to formulate questions to which we do not have answers close at hand. Second, even with a good question, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have documented a large number of examples where the heuristic answers generated by System 1 are often based on substitutions that go completely unnoticed, and therefore unchecked.
Both of these problems can be addressed by involving another person who can slow us down so our System 2 can kick in, ask us good questions, and challenge us when our direction is based on superficial heuristics.
The Shortest Way to Your Goal
Pausing and slowing down will often get you to your goal faster because you will take a shorter, smarter, and more effective path to reaching it. While it could be argued that ‘accelerating’ your progress is just a different way of saying the same thing, I believe the distinction is more than a nuance.
If you want to reach your goal, you are better off slowing down to find the most effective path that will lead you there. Otherwise, you’ll risk running in the same old circles, only faster.
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast And Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, p. 240. ↩