Learning from Life and Leadership

Getting More By Going Slower: The Power of Disfluency

We like things that are easy. Our minds like to conserve energy for more important things.

The problem comes when we encounter information. The more information we have, the less we can think . (Having choices is fun. Choosing is agonizing.) We feel like the mythical Tantalus who was punished by being submerged up to his neck in water with food hanging above his head just out of reach. He could not drink or eat, even though both were plentiful.

Technology is our power and our crutch. Phones, tablets, and laptops are ubiquitous. The grease the path so that we don’t have to use our minds. Elementary school children ask school offices to use the phones but then ask, “do you know my phone number?” The number is stored in “favorites” but not accessible to memory.

I have presented lectures and materials to college students. As I talk, they typed. They capture the information but don’t learn the lesson. (I know because I asked their opinion of something I said. They had to go back and read it off the screen but did not give an insight.)

It is too easy. We need to make it harder. That’s where the concept of disfluency comes in.

Fluency is about ease and speed. A person “fluent” in a language does not labor to speak and understand it. When a person is “disfluent” their natural way of mental processing gets interrupted.

My introduction to disfluency came in Charles Duhigg’s book Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity. He details a Cincinnati school that was the worst in the state. So in true modern fashion, the answer was simple. Throw technology at it. Data by the reams sizzled on memory chips and accumulated on hard drives. Parents received reports and teachers could pour over scores, means, and averages. Armed with this array of technology, it would seem it should solve the problem. It didn’t. Only when teachers wrote out data (by hand) on an index card for each child did things change. They slowed down long enough to see patterns.

Disfluency changes speed to absorb information rather than going fast enough to gather it. We have outpaced our brains.

Princeton University studies show that students who took notes on laptops collected twice as much information as their slower handwriting peers. At test time, it was different. Those who took notes by hand scored twice as well as the technological gatherers.

What does disfluency mean to you?

You have to decide whether having the information is more important. If you want to learn, slow down. Take a different approach. I discovered this by accident. I eat at a restaurant with a sign I have always seen but never read. One day, I saw it on the other side of the glass. The letters were backward. It intrigued me, and I started to make it out. Only by looking at the backward sign did I pay attention to the message on the front.

I am far from a Luddite who despises technology, but I have learned to use disfluency to learn and do more. I have gone back to paper for some things.

Use Paper to Take Notes

I have a Bible study program that lets me cut and paste lines of notes. I tried it for a while and did not get anything out of it. I had information without understanding. When I took out a legal pad and pen and took notes on the same material, I captured less and understood more.

Use Paper to Make Lists

Powerful computer programs track of my tasks and projects. I am glad to be able to capture the information. I need it. When it comes to my daily plan, I write down my top three things to do today in a paper notebook and keep a sidebar of all the things I need to pay attention in the week. My college-ruined scrawl fills the handwritten page. It takes longer to make the lists, but I do more than when I look at a list of 100 projects and my 97 next actions. Paring it down and just writing down with a ball point pen on paper focuses my mind.

Use Paper to Think Through Projects and Problems

I use an outliner program to create outlines. When I get stuck, I resort to the yellow pad and a pen. I can outline, scratch out, mark up, etc. without much effort. As my brain pours it out, thoughts come together that don’t occur to me while I am tapping away.

When you feel confused, turn away from the screen and get the paper and start writing. The process of slowing down will focus your mind and sharpen thinking.

How could disfluency help you?


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Getting More By Going Slower: The Power of Disfluency