There are two ‘sides’ to our brain and nervous system. One deals with routine matters that we don’t have to think about – the things we just do, like walking and breathing. Then there is the part of our brain and nervous system that deals with the things we do consciously. Most of the time we rely on the former and only call on the latter when we need to. That is, much of what we do is carried out with little or no conscious thought – and that’s a mixed blessing.
On the positive side, it means that there is much we can get done with minimal effort, leaving us to focus our mind on other things. On the negative side, it means that there is a danger that we may do things on ‘automatic pilot’ that really do need our full attention. In a general sense, just think about how many road traffic accidents are caused by people not concentrating, by drivers not having their mind fully on driving safely. And in a professional sense, we need to be careful that we are not doing important things in a routinised, unthinking way.
This brings us to an important part of reflective practice, namely the ability to stand back from a situation and clarify what is happening, what we are doing, what we need to be doing, what pitfalls we need to be aware of, and so on – what is often called ‘reflection-in-action’. This involves switching from the side of the brain and nervous system that deals with automatic, unthinking actions to the other side, the side that deals with conscious thought. It involves becoming more alert (more ‘mindful’, to use the currently popular terminology), more tuned in to our surroundings and our circumstances.
Unfortunately, being called upon to focus in more consciously in this way can make some people feel anxious. In my experience this is often because of negative experiences in the education system where they have been criticised (or even mocked) for their efforts to think things through. For other people, because they are busy, they can make the mistake of assuming that they are too busy to think; they feel under pressure to just ‘get on with it’, as if thinking is a waste of time. Some organisations can cause problems too, because many have a culture that discourages thinking. Thinking is sees as ‘down time’, something you do instead of working, rather than an essential part of effective professional practice. Of course, some thinking can be a waste of time if it is unfocused, ill informed or misdirected.
What is also important to recognise is that, although thinking is something we can all do to at least a basic level, it is possible to develop our skills to a more advanced level. For example, there are analytical skills that involve, among other things, being able to recognise significant patterns and interconnections in a given situation. The good news is that it is possible to develop those skills over time, to become more effective thinkers. A key element of this is practice. That is, the more we think, plan and analyse (that is, the more reflective we are), the more skilful we will become over time. By contrast, the more intellectually lazy we are (that is, the more we shy away from thinking), the more we are denying ourselves the opportunity to improve our thinking skills.
Some people will warn of the danger of thinking too much, of ‘overthinking’, but generally that is more to do with anxiety than thinking, and that is a different kettle of fish altogether. Then there will also be the people who complain thinking is no substitute for doing – just thinking about something does not produce results. But I don’t think anyone is really advocating thinking instead of doing; it’s more a case of thinking to help doing, to try and make sure that what we do is safe, appropriate and effective.