Daniel Kahneman’s revolutionary new work, “Thinking, Fast and Slow” examines the psychological convention of splitting thinking into two systems, which can be manipulated in the workplace to drive up productivity. System 1 is the set of assumptions we carry with us about the world to help us understand patterns. It is also in some learned skills such as reading, driving or in very accomplished musicians, for example, playing piano. System 2 is the more deliberate thought stream which is concerned with computation and problem-solving from first principles. You can imagine which of these is fast, and which is a slower process.
Limitations of the systems
They both have their limitations, however, system 1 is involuntary so it is impossible to turn off. It is also biased and may answer simpler questions than it is actually being presented, leading to both visual and cognitive illusions, such as the Müller-Lyer illusion pictured below.
System 2 has its flaws when asked to pay attention – this will cause temporary blindness to other aspects of the situation: the so-called “missing the bigger picture for the finer details”. This is illustrated perfectly in the “Invisible Gorilla” video (1).
It is also entirely impossible to use these systems simultaneously. Try jogging and doing long multiplication at the same time. You will find you have to stop in your tracks while you figure out the problem.
This however doesn’t mean that System 2 thinking always must be slow and deliberate. Tasks become cognitively easier the more it is liked or enjoyed by the individual. This leads to what was described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as “flow-state thinking” which is the state of being in complete harmony with work, an uninterrupted “flow” of creativity. You can sit for hours without breaks applying yourself to whatever challenge you put in front of you when in “flow”. It is incredibly useful to productivity at work, and as a manager you can harness the power of “flow-state thinking” to engage and encourage your workers’ productivity. The portal to the “flow-state” is positivity and enjoyment; when one enjoys work more, one can focus more easily. You should consider the best employee for certain projects based on their strengths, weaknesses and interests, to ensure the “flow-state” has the right environment to flourish.
How to harness the “flow-state”.
The key to utilising the “flow-state” in employees is to do it transparently and intermittently, directly explaining to employees to try this technique. “Flow-state thinking” should be used sparingly, on important projects only, as it comes at a cost. You can make key mistakes during the “flow-state” as it is an elevation of System 2 thought into an automatic stream, and system 2 has biases. This will lead to increased mistakes at the cost of creativity. Therefore, using a “flow-state” should be followed by a critical appraisal of the work performed. As the manager, you are best placed to perform this role, by editing or giving feedback.