Please wait…

This week, a mighty achievement has come to pass in my universe. In collaboration with a friend who is a considerably more practised and capable cruciverbalist than I am, we finished a ‘Genius’ crossword in the Guardian. If you are rolling your eyes and thinking ‘a crossword – so what?’ then I suggest you go and have a look at them. See? Come on, admit it: you’re impressed now, right?

We slogged away at the thing for a fairly long stint before actual work intervened, and the rest had to be completed via texts and photos of the remaining gaps in the grid. In fact the final two solutions only emerged the next day, after I wrote out the clues, memorised them and then wandered around all morning doing other things and letting my brain process them in its own time. Eventually – by lunchtime – I’d got them both. Puzzle solved.

Crossword puzzle with glasses and pen lying on top

Some people are extremely good at thinking on their feet. They can sit around a table with colleagues, pose questions, and ping answers, slogans, strategies, timelines, out of their brains and straight to paper. They can plan ten-week courses over the course of coffee with a colleague, summon the perfect musical study piece in seconds. They are fast: their minds work quickly.

I am not really one of those people. I like to be asked a question, and to have a little time to think about a suitable answer. If you ask me to plan a course, I’d rather go away and think about it. Not for months – a day or two will do. An afternoon, at a push. But I work much better if you just wait a bit and let me figure it out. Whether it’s a concert programme or a crossword clue, being patient with me is rather more likely to yield the correct solution. In fact, if you put my brain under pressure, it gets a bit panicked, and really needs time away to chew matters over properly. (I’m aware that this makes it sound like an over-sensitive pet, but since I have found from experience that letting it deal with things in its own good time tends to work rather well, I’m not sure how else to explain it.) I can’t imagine for one moment that I’m the only person who responds better to a bit of pondering time than to being pestered for an immediate response.

But this puts me in direct opposition to the current preferred mode of working, which is to have the right answer now. If you can buy what you want, watch what you want, listen to what you want by tapping your smartphone or iPad or laptop screen and immediately getting it, your overall capacity for patience tends to wane. And what, then, happens to those of us who can’t keep up? Who will employ us? We will be doomed forever to be the slow ones! The failures! Useless for high-speed business, and particularly useless for TV shows and movies with the kind of fast-paced dialogue that would be completely ruined if one of the characters said, ‘Yeah Bob, I totally see what you need here. Can I get back to you on Tuesday?’ and ended the scene.

Thankfully, we don’t live in a TV show. (I’m talking literally, of course. Metaphorically… well, that’s a subject for another blog, perhaps.) It’s ok to take time to think things through. The trick is not to feel pressured into working in a way that you actually can’t sustain. This is why meetings are usually followed by minutes, and minutes by agendas and papers, so that there is time to prepare thoughts and responses for the next meeting. However, this relies upon there being ample time between the circulation of the paperwork and the meeting itself. If there isn’t, quick-on-their-feet thinkers will sink those of us who prefer pondering time. And pondering time is how we provide the best results – the best demonstrations of our own abilities, and our power to help contribute to projects and ideas. So if you are a mulling-it-over thinker like me, make sure that your work colleagues know this, and show them how much more productive it is to factor in that extra time for you. Patience and care over planning is what allows good ideas to develop, potential problems to be spotted and resolved, and reasoned debate to occur. Sort of like an anti-Twitter: think, then write, then publish with actual gaps in between to apply critical assessment.

And after all, think… write… publish is also the way that the best books are produced, fiction and non-fiction, academic and non-academic. (I’m tempted to add something here about taking time over developing government policies as well, but perhaps that’s a can of worms best left sealed for today.) So take a bit of time to mull work over, choose those Christmas presents, solve that crossword. And to the quick-thinkers out there: please wait. It won’t take long. And you’ll be glad, we ponderers promise you, that you did.

One comment

  • Marian

    Spending time NOT actively thinking seems to be terribly inderated, and yet it is such a good way to let great ideas pop into your brain. I think a culture of having to be, or at least ‘look’, busy all the time can be counter-productive to creativity. I’m a believer in necessity being the mother of invention, but also allowing the mind to wander, as you suggest, so that any germs of ideas can be worked on by the subconscious. I’ve done a similar thing with crosswords – gone to bed with a couple of clues in my brain and when I woke up in the morning I had the answers. All my best ideas have come to me when I was walking or in the shower or something. We need to trust our brains as well as give them freedom and time.

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