2020: A Year of Thinking Slow

2020: A Year of Thinking Slow

Christian Sharp

Christian Sharp

Communications is notorious for moving at breakneck speed; I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people say that a PR year is like a dog year. We juggle communicating with stakeholders from our own teams, to customers, to journalists, to analysts, and with partners, not to mention the higher-ups in our own companies – and they have stakeholders too! All this collaboration and co-ordination needs thought and not just snap judgments. But if you put that on top of all the other mental load that we’ve been experiencing this year, you’ve got a super-quick recipe for burnout.

The Roots of Slow Thinking

But why is this? It’s not just stress and fear of the pandemic – to really understand this we have to go a little deeper. We tend to quote Daniel Kahneman a lot, either in pieces for this newsletter or our own sales collateral, because his work is very important to reputation – and his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, is a banger*.

The primary thesis in TFAS is that humans prefer to ‘think fast’. We run on automatic, we take shortcuts, we become creatures of habit – whether that’s preferring Sainsbury’s over Tesco, McDonald’s over Burger King, or whatever else. This is because this automatic, ‘fast’ thinking is less energy-consuming than the alternative. Thinking ‘slowly’, deeply, or however you want to refer to it, is literally an energy drain. It’s tiring.

And during the pandemic, we’ve all had to think more slowly. Where do I need to wear a mask? How many people can I socialise with? Am I following the latest government guidelines? Am I more than two metres away from that dogwalker on the pavement? Do I have hand sanitiser with me? Is it safe to go to the cinema?

Every single time you force your brain to think, it’s working out like an Olympic athlete. When you add all of this to the fast-paced world of comms and it’s no wonder people are exhausted – it’s been a tiring year! Clearly, the same is true for other industries as well – it’s not just comms, it’s HR, it’s sales, and so on – any part of the business that went into over-drive has been running on empty for some time.

Can I Think Fast and Still Get the Job Done?

As a manager or director in comms, it’s a tough job to balance looking after your team and still getting the job done, because a lot of our work is ‘thinking slow’, deliberate, considered work. There will be some jobs – reports and the like – that can be done on automatic, but in general, it’s better to look at measures where you can save mental energy to begin with. So here are a few starters for ten:

- Know Thyself: You can’t do a good job if you’re not looking after yourself, so be aware of whether you’re having an especially bad / tiring day. Be kind to yourself and remember that we’re living through a pandemic and that’s incredibly hard.

- Know Your Team: They’ll be having ‘off days’ as well, and that’s ok. Everyone will have felt the strain of the pandemic differently, so keep an eye on them, force them to be kind to themselves. Above all, make sure they’re taking holidays!

- Trust (and use) Your Team: With any luck, not everyone will be having a bad day at the same time, and while we’re not saying to ‘push everything down’ and delegate wildly, your team is there to support you – so make use of them (and vice versa). Sometimes this means getting someone else to check that email you’ve just written if you know you’re having an off-day because you’ve exhausted yourself mentally and sometimes it’s doing that for someone else.

- Rest Properly: The urge to ‘fight back to normal’ at weekends can be strong, so if you’re busy during the week, don’t push yourself to catch up with *all* your friends and relatives at the weekend, because that requires lots of thought, and although it might be good for you on a social level, it’s also draining. Get the balance right.

- Insist on Routines: Routines are mental shortcuts (‘thinking fast’) – and as you build habits and get into them, you can ‘think fast’ about them, rather than always having to ‘think slow’. Similarly, avoid unnecessary distractions – unsubscribe from newsletters (not Firefly’s, obviously) and try not to multi-task too much. This will help to conserve that valuable mental energy!

Looking Forwards

As I write this, the government is issuing new guidelines on how many people can gather in public in the UK, and the news sites are speculating about the possibility of curfews being introduced. The Economist is warning that unless we can beat Covid globally, we won’t beat it at all – and even the most optimistic estimate doesn’t see us beating the pandemic before the end of 2020. In short – it ain’t over yet.

This means that we need to start – or continue – measures to adapt to this temporary (but lengthy) difficult period. Most of us have our masks, hand sanitiser and (where appropriate) home offices set up, but now it’s time to make sure that we’re being kind to ourselves, realise the impact that the pandemic has on our mental states, and adapt sustainably so that we can continue communicating efficiently and effectively.

* Put it next to Oren Klaff’s Pitch Anything and Kotter’s Leading Change and you’ve got three of the best communications books in the world.

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