Dealing with Distractions-Why things take longer than you think

I love to read and have had the good fortune to finish one interesting book and then start another that are closely related.  Just after Christmas I finished the book “The Undoing Project” by Michael Lewis where he discusses the research work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman.  These gentlemen were famous for their work in the areas of how people make decisions.  The life experiences they both had from their days in the Israeli army make the read even more fascinating as they stopped their research in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s to return to Israel and rejoin the army for the wars fought during those times.

I am now reading Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow” where he gets into even more detail about the “heuristics” of decision making.  The word heuristic is one that I have seen before, but I really never understood fully, so I’ll list the definition of it for you here according to Merriam Webster:

involving or serving as an aid to learning, discovery, or problem-solving by experimental and especially trial-and-error methods

In this book Kahneman defines what he calls System 1 and System 2 thinking.  System 1 is thinking that operates effortlessly, intuitively and automatically with little or no thinking on our part.  System 2 is thinking that requires slowing down, deliberating, solving problems, reasoning and computing or focusing intently.

System 1 thinking would tell you that the top line in the diagram above is longer than the bottom line.  If you use System 2 and actually measure, you will find that the lines are equal in length.  This is a very simple example of how our brains will mislead us with only System 1 thinking.

When we are involved in a situation where we are using System 1 primarily and things are introduced the require System 2 effort, the situation changes and can wreak havoc on whatever you may be intending to accomplish or focus upon.  Let’s talk more about this.

We often get engaged in issues during our workday where we almost get on what Kahneman refers to as “flow”.  Flow can even occur with System 2 thinking when the process becomes repetitive and more predictable.  This flow can be derailed or interrupted with a different type of System 2 thinking.  These interruptions also occur when we are involved in more mundane System 1 thinking and a System 2 event or opportunity is thrust upon us.  Here are some common instances where System 2 “hijacks” our normal thinking:

  • a deadline for a project is moved or the project is changed in complexity or scope
  • we learn of a tragedy or need on the part of a loved one
  • we see or are involved in an event where we have to take immediate action, especially where life and safety are involved

I could cite a number of other examples, but I think you get the picture.  Kahneman discusses some simple exercises where you can test the power of System 2 when it hijacks your thinking in normal situations.  Go for a walk at a normal pace and just relax and enjoy the scenery.  You could then escalate the pace to a level where your breathing gets tougher or you feel the exertion.  Another example is to start with the simple walk and then have someone ask you to multiply 2 2-digit numbers.  For most of us this will require some thought and many will have to stop walking in order to complete the computational exercise.

Think about the last time you tried to get something done and were interrupted or derailed.  I suspect you can identify the occurrence of System 2 interruptions on this project.  Even more, think about what you might do in a future situation to prevent or minimize the potential for these types of interruptions.

I’ll talk more about this and the impacts of System 2 thinking on how leaders get things done.