In Praise of Slow Thinking

Google seems like the last employer on earth that would promote slowness at work.

After all, this is a company that went from a twinkle in its founders' eyes to global supremacy in a just a few years. It pumps out new products at a dizzying rate. It is the reigning superpower on the speed-obsessed Web.

Yet Google also understands the need to step off the spinning hamster wheel in the workplace.

The company famously encourages its staff to devote 20 percent of their time to personal projects. That does not mean brushing up on World of Warcraft or updating Facebook pages or flirting with that hot new manager in Accounts. It means getting the creative juices flowing by stopping the usual barrage of targets, deadlines and distractions.

By allowing staff to slow down, in other words.

The idea is that Google employees can tackle problems that really interest them at their own pace, free to think deeply, pursue hunches and flights of fancy, make mistakes, meander down dead ends that may ultimately illuminate a better route forward.

And it seems to work. Many of Google's most innovative products, from Gmail to AdSense, have grown from projects hatched during 20 percent time.

The moral of the story is that, even in the high-speed modern world, slowness and creativity go hand in hand. We are only just starting to understand how the brain works, but already it seems clear that there are different ways of thinking. Malcolm Gladwell has shown how the mind can sometimes make incredibly accurate split-second decisions.

Others have identified modes of thought known as Fast Thinking and Slow Thinking.

The former is rational, analytical, linear, logical. It delivers clear solutions to well-defined problems. It is how computers think. It is what human beings do under pressure, when the clock is ticking, when the boss is hovering nearby with a Quarterly Assessment clipboard in hand.

By contrast, Slow Thinking is intuitive, woolly and creative. It is what we do when the pressure is off, and there is time to let ideas simmer on the back burner. It yields rich, nuanced insights and sometimes surprising breakthroughs.

Research has shown that time pressure leads to tunnel vision and that people think more creatively when they are calm, unhurried and free from stress and distractions. We all know this from experience. Your best ideas, those eureka moments that turn the world upside down, seldom come when you're juggling emails, rushing to meet the 5pm deadline or straining to make your voice heard in a high-stress meeting. They come when you're walking the dog, soaking in the bath or swinging in a hammock.

The greatest thinkers in history certainly knew the value of shifting into a lower gear. Milan Kundera talked about "the wisdom of slowness." Albert Einstein spent hours just staring into space in his office at Princeton University. Charles Darwin described himself as a "slow thinker."

Google belongs to a long and noble tradition of letting the mind wander.

Of course, Slow Thinking can be pointless without the rigors of Fast Thinking. You have to grasp, analyze and harness the ideas that bubble up from the subconscious -- and often you must do so quickly. Einstein appreciated the need to marry the two modes of thought: "Computers are incredibly fast, accurate, and stupid. Human beings are incredibly slow, inaccurate, and brilliant. Together they are powerful beyond imagination."

This balancing of fast and slow fits into a wider cultural shift. Everywhere, people are discovering that slowing down at the right moment can help us work, play and live better.

Yet this Slow revolution can be a tough sell in an economic downturn. When recession bites, our reflex is to work harder, longer, faster. But there is so much to be gained by resisting the urge to put the pedal to the metal.

Returning to business as usual is not the answer to this crisis. The future will belong to those who can innovate their way back into shape -- and innovation comes from knowing when to slow down.

You don't have to work for Google, or any of the other firms encouraging staff to pursue personal projects on company time, to use slowness to unlock your creativity. Anyone can do it.

Start by clearing space in your schedule for rest, daydreaming and serendipity. Take breaks away from your desk, especially when you get stuck on a problem. Go for a walk or a run. Find time to meditate, do yoga or just watch the clouds drifting by overhead. Play with toys and games to limber up the creative muscles.

The secret is to relax and let the mind drift. You'll be amazed by where it takes you.

To HuffPost Readers: How do you get your creative juicing flowing?