For most of us, waiting time is wasted time. A moment of waiting could be used in innumerably more productive ways. As a result, we avoid waiting at all costs, from finding ways to board a plane quicker to using those small slivers of time between meetings to chip away at our inbox.
Yet our avoidance of waiting is robbing us of a valuable resource. Wait times are needed for innovation, for building knowledge and for imagining futures that don’t yet exist.
As we seek to eliminate waiting from our lives, we risk losing a moment in the day that has unique opportunities for how we imagine leadership and understand our most complex problems.
Cognitively, moments of waiting activate what is called the ‘default’ or imagination network of the brain, which enables us to make innovative connections across ideas.
By activating the imagination network of the brain, moments of waiting, boredom, and daydreaming afford leaders the ability to come across solutions that they could not have accessed if they had searched for them.
Similarly, if we do not give an idea time to percolate in our minds, we lose the ability to move it from short-term memory to long-term memory. In other words, waiting on an idea gives our brains the time it takes to build knowledge and, ultimately, innovate on that knowledge.
This is why I tell my university students never to cram for an exam; instead, the research recommends an approach that calls for bursts of activity followed by short breaks. The breaks are key for allowing an idea to move from short-term to working memory and ultimately solidifying as a long-term memory.
Applying this tactic for a team or group in a business might mean having them take a 15-mintue break after 45 minutes of activity. This imposed wait time, in which they must have down time that is device-free and boredom inducing, will not only activate the imagination network, it will also allow the ideas brought up to move into regions of the brain that build long-term thinking and innovation. As a result, teams can be more creative and build on knowledge rather than reinvent solutions from the past.
Cultivating wait times as an opportunity to ‘do nothing’ runs against every instinct a successful leader likely has. The pressures of success require them to be extraordinarily productive while having the pulse of the organisation, yet constantly striving for these might actually be counterproductive. Packing each second of the day in order to succeed will instead lead to burnout and an inability to solve problems creatively.
During the research for my book, I spent time with astrophysicists and operations managers at NASA and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab. The kind of research they conduct requires years of waiting as spacecraft journey across the solar system. For me, their research was conducted at a shockingly slow pace: a single project could take decades and might not lead to success.
Yet for these scientists and operations managers, long wait times functioned as an ‘enabling constraint’ that led to innovation time and time again. When confronted with a time where teams were forced to wait, these teams utilized those constraints as moments to imagine new ways of doing things. They created contingency lists for scenarios they had yet to encounter. They built new tools that would use the waiting as a device for measuring the universe. They imagined unexplored worlds and how they might study that which had yet to be seen.
Our models of success and our internal impulses urge us to avoid waiting at all costs. Wait times are the antithesis of productivity and successful people don’t let others waste their time. Yet a shift in perspective - one that values the moments when we are forced to wait - will lead to the kind of productivity that unlocks creativity, builds long-term knowledge, and avoids a workforce that is burned out.
Jason Farman is associate professor of American studies at the University of Maryland and author of Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting From the Ancient to the Instant World (Yale University Press).
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