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Embracing Delay: A PRACTICE

Posted Jul 17 2012 3:42pm

I never thought I’d say this, but I have come to appreciate the idea of slowing down…of delaying my reaction (if my husband is reading, I am sure he’s going to check to make sure it’s actually me who is writing this). Not only delaying, but also actively examining the various reactions I may have to any given input, be it noticing the Smartfood popcorn at the grocery store or finding myself becoming annoyed at someone.

This was driven home by an interview I heard with author Frank Partnoy , who has written a book called “Wait: The Art & Science of Delay.”

In the interview he discusses the concept of slowing down as the key to better decision-making in our personal and professional lives. Of course, we’ve all heard that advice (“being mindful”) as it relates to better health (and weight loss), but this took it to a new level for me.

In the interview he said that our current culture does not reward delay (instead we feel guilty for “procrastinating”), yet “letting it set a spell” allows us to be much more effective, not only about making decisions but also in scenarios where it appears there’s no time to think (he discusses scenarios like the Wall Street financial crisis and the heated environment of a hospital ER).

Some examples:

  • Responding to a radio ad for fast food (do we keep driving or do we pull in to the drive through?)
  • Reacting to something we see via social media (do we repost the political sound bite without checking to make sure it’s true?)
  • Returning a high-speed serve in a tennis game (turns out the reason professionals in super-fast sports are better is because they’re slow – they get faster at returning a serve, so that they free up more time to process information, to watch the ball, to take in and observe and orient to the ball and that’s where they get their advantage)

What struck me is when he said (in this case in regards to how advertisers want us to make emotional decisions without thinking about them first*) “Take a step back and say, you know what? I’m not gonna let you influence me. I’m gonna take a breath. I’m gonna take a pause, let it wash over me and not react.”

I recognize myself as someone who has had a tendency to live “in reaction to” instead of taking a moment to decide how I really feel about something. For sure I mean food, but also relationships, and myriad other aspects of life.

This is where Resistant Karen serves me: she doesn’t like to be manipulated. She says, “Oh, you think you can make me emotionally react and eat a bag of Smartfood popcorn?” She has also decided that she doesn’t like the idea that someone else seemingly has the power to annoy her.

In fact, I recently put this to the test. I found myself being consistently annoyed by someone and consciously decided that I didn’t want to be annoyed any more, because I didn’t like how it felt. The person didn’t change at all…I did.

The point isn’t to never choose the popcorn or to be annoyed, but to understand that I indeed HAVE a choice despite “how fast” everyone else seems to be moving. There is power in that. I can take my sweet time and decide to eat the popcorn or to be annoyed. Or not.

Getting back to Partnoy’s research, one of the most surprising things he found is that decision-making doesn’t just happen in the brain, it happens in the brain’s stem and in the vagal nerve, the tenth cranial nerve that comes down from our brain stem and winds around various organs in the body, most importantly the heart, and it varies the heart rate.

So basically, people who are able to vary their heart rate, just by milliseconds are better able to control their emotions and reactions.

*There are studies that show just being exposed to a fast food logo will make you read 20% faster and will make you experience music in an impatient way. Our heart rate goes up and all of a sudden we’re hungry. One way to practice is to expose yourself to a fast food logo and then force yourself to take a pause, to relax. Some would say that this advice is counter to “going with your gut” but I believe it can be be a “both/and” proposition. Listen to what your gut says and then check in with your heart. Delay as necessary.

Does knowing that you’re purposely being manipulated compel you to resist? Does knowing the science behind a concept help you embrace it?

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