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.
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.
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.
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?
Life’s phone keeps ringing, like the telemarketer at dinner time. Many opportunities, requests, and demands come to your life. PTA meeting notices come home in backpacks. Dinner invitations arrive in the mail. Friends say, “can you help me out with this small thing?” Most of what arrives on our plate is a matter of volume, not importance. A few “little things” snowball into an avalanche that sweeps you away.
Some believe they are Superman, able to vault any challenge and give unlimited time. It does not take long before you realize there is more to do than there is “you” to do it. Others let things fall through the cracks. People get disappointed or angry when you don’t respond after saying yes.
Before you say “yes” or “no,” ask three questions.
What do I need to do? Some demands in life are uniquely yours. No one can take them off your shoulders. You are responsible for your child. You are the one married to your spouse. You may find yourself in the position of needing to care for an aging parent, and no one else is around. Some responsibilities in life belong to you. What individual responsibilities do you have that you will answer to God for one day?
Could I do it? Many things we could do, but it would not propel us toward our goals. A group asks you to serve (or chair) a committee. Your child’s teacher calls and needs someone to coordinate school parties this year? Can you do it? You get an invitation to a gathering your “need” to attend. Do you go? Because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Does it take you away from something more important? Remember that every yes is in someway a no to something else. Will it take more time than you have? Does it help you become what you want to be in life? The lists of “could’s” is lengthy.
Should I do it? This question is the sticking point with many. Are you the right person to do this? Can someone else do this as well? If I did it, what would the tradeoff be? I have learned I am not a mechanic. (Every time I fix something I cut a part of my body.) I am not an accountant. I don’t know much about investments. I could learn, or I can let those who are better help me. While there are many things you could do, there are many fewer things you should do.
Will I do it? I have my share of orphaned projects. I look at them every week on my projects list. I look and do nothing. I tell myself “one day” but one day never comes. For many things, I came to a simple conclusion. It was either not worth doing, or someone else could do it better. In fact, sometimes letting someone help me gave them an opportunity to grow.
Your list of things to do never goes away. In fact, it tends to grow. There is always more to do than time to do it. Decide if you will. If it fits your skill set and will make a difference to you, then what are you waiting for?
I keep six honest serving men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who.
Someone commented, “When I was in my 20’s, I knew all the answers. When I got to my 60’s, I had nothing but questions.” That statement rings true for many people
“What does this experience make possible?”
What one thing, if I did it right now, would change the situation?
Can you help me understand what it is like to be you?
What’s missing? (Especially if everyone is sure)
Am I running toward something, or running away from something?
Is this useful?
What is the worst that can happen if we do this?
What’s the best that can happen if we do this?
What’s the best that can happen if we don’t do this?
What’s the worst that can happen if we don’t do this?
I am writing this post from a room in a motel in Managua, Nicaragua.
It is not my own room. The shower has no hot water so shaving is difficult. Don’t even think about putting paper down the commode. (I won’t go into the mechanics or alternatives.)
Each year I come to Nicaragua as part of a Health Talents International team on a mobile medical mission trip. I come for a particular reason. My church supports a program that feeds hungry children in four locations. I come to see and then report.
The trip is difficult for many reasons besides cold water, beans and rice for every meal or a different bed. It’s January and it’s hot.
I come to help people. I fit eyeglasses on people who cannot see well. Great doctors give examinations and write prescriptions that are filled by exceptional pharmacists. Dentists extract teeth in chairs made of plywood. All of this happens out of suitcases and in less than professional environments. We help hundreds in a few days.
Then we go home to warm beds, hot water, working plumbing, and loving families.
It is difficult, so why go?
One obvious reason is altruistic—to help people who need the help. Something in all of us yearns to make a difference in the life of someone else, someone who has no way of returning the favor. I can think of no better place to do that than where I am.
A not so obvious reason is what it does to me in a different way. It refreshes me. In no possible universe can you say hard work in dirty areas is refreshing. Yet, the refreshment comes only through that discomfort. I get to experience life in a different vein, see through different eyes, and feel with a different heart. I see things inside of me that are masked by technology and suburbia. I come because in the discomfort of the place, I find peace in my soul. That only happens when you become uncomfortable.
Some people jump out of perfectly good airplane. Others fish, hunt, camp, or sail. All are perfectly acceptable was of getting just uncomfortable enough to make you think.
I like mine. I look into the eyes of worried parents with hurting children. I see children devour food that kids back home twist their faces into a displeasured distortion. I see people standing in heat rather than complaining about how hot or cold they are. I get the change to make some small difference by being God’s representative to them (a role that none of us deserve but are called to do).
I get to be uncomfortable and I get a chance to grow. What about you?
When you get to a certain age, people expect you to be grown-up. No one knows what that means (and it is irrelevant what they think it means). However, some people get stuck in adolescence. They are in the mid-30’s and acting like 16 years old.
So how do you know your growing up?
We hate boredom. We find anything to fill the time. How many pounds accumulate due to mindless eating due to boredom pack? How many hours get wasted in front of mediocre TV shows? How much trouble have teens found just to “have something to do”?
Do you remember when you were not bored? Mothers once shooed their children outside to beat summer boredom. What happened with nothing to do?