Wanted

Wanted: Time to Think
David M. Levy
MIT Sloan Management Review, Fall 2008

In recent years, we have experienced a speedup in the pace of life that leaves us little time to stop and think.  Yet during this same period of time, we have produced extraordinary tools for investigating the world and for sharing our findings.  Thanks to networked digital computers, e-mail and the World Wide Web, access to scholarly information and research results has never been easier.

We would seem, then, to be losing the time to think at the very moment we have the tools to unlock the knowledge we could put to use, if only we could take the time to understand it.

In “Wanted:  Time to Think,” in the fall 2008 Sloan Management Review, Professor David M. Levy of the Information School at the University of Washington examines this phenomenon.

Levy points out that creative insights require time, and a pace at odds with today’s accelerated society.  For example, Nobel Prize‑winning geneticist Barbara McClintock was able to see further and deeper into the mysteries of genetics than her colleagues.  According to her biographer, Evelyn Fox Keller, McClintock was able to take the time to look and to hear what the corn she studied had to say to her.

McClintock observed each of her corn plants with great concentration, patience, care, and even love; she knew each of them intimately.  Her method was to “see one kernel that was different, and make that understandable.”

After giving a lecture at Harvard, McClintock mingled with a group of graduate students and urged them to “take the time and look.”  The students responded, “Where does one get the time to look and to think?”  They told her research into molecular biology is “self-propelling”:  It doesn’t leave time, because there’s always another experiment or another sequencing to do.  The pace of research keeps them from taking the time to contemplate.

McClintock’s meeting with graduate students took place in the early 1980s.  If questions could be raised more than two decades ago about the pace of life and its consequences for looking and thinking, how much more urgently might such questions be raised today, when the pace is even faster?

Already today, we see a range of inno­vations that to varying degrees have helped people deal with the tidal wave of information, including “do not call” telephone lists, e-mail filters and cell-phone free zones.

Yet, solving the problem of information overload will not address the problem of accelera­ti...