The summer can be a busy time. I am not certain why it is busy than any other, but somehow it at least feels that way. It could be the additional hours of light that inspires us to do more. I know that I always want to do more in the yard and fall back into the neglected house exhausted. When I rally back to myself, I see how I did not plan well and am reacting to whatever is coming my way. I want to do better, but I also have started so many projects as the opportunity came and I now feel I must soldier on through. This is when I know a moment of pausing months ago would have been helpful. Here I celebrate the benefits of pausing to reflect.
This installment continues the article series, The Story of Natural Reflectors. Article 4 is from Part 1 that contains the first 6 articles on where we are in life today and how we got here. It is a hard part of the series that explores how we are addicted to action and how reflection is truly a good thing, but also why we are better off if reflection and action are used together to create a balance that only we can define and judge.
The prospect of slowing down can be counterintuitive when we have been indoctrinated into the cult of action. In fact, it may feel as if we are divorcing from everything we have ever been taught and heading toward certain failure. Still, if it is necessary to create our best work and best selves, it is something worth trying. To help battle the gremlin who says, “Don’t you dare slow down!” it is good to take a look at what healthy slowing down looks like.
Let’s take a look at kimchi. Say you’ve made a batch and are now waiting for it to be ready to serve at dinner. We say it is fermenting, but what does that actually mean? The specific process is lacto-fermentation, where lactic acid bacteria break down the carbohydrates in the vegetables into lactic acid and carbon dioxide.
Sounds a bit like rotting vegetables, doesn’t it? The Noma Guide to Fermentation describes rotting and fermentation to be as different as an unsavory dive versus a happening nightclub. “[Rotting] is a club where everyone gets in: bacteria and fungi, safe or unsafe, flavor enhancing or destructive. [Whereas in fermentation], you’re taking on the role of a bouncer, keeping out unwanted microbes and letting in the ones that are going to make the party pop” (Baechu Kimchi, 2021).
The bouncer for making kimchi is the salt water that the vegetables sit in overnight. The salt breaks through the walls of the harmful pathogens, like Salmonella, and the submersion kills the oxygen-loving pathogens that create mold. The lactic acid bacteria start to feast on the vegetables, releasing acid to lower the pH and keep other pathogens, like botulism, from growing. The party keeps going until all the carbohydrates are gone and the kimchi turns to vinegar. The whole point is to preserve the vegetables and make the kimchi safe to eat and easier for the body to absorb (Baechu Kimchi, 2021).
From the outside, it can look like there is nothing going on while the kimchi is “pausing.” The fact is, though, there is much going on at a level that is generally not seen. The process must be trusted to achieve the outcome of kimchi.
What could happen if we slow down and trust the process? Slowing down can allow us to reflect, and if we trust the process in those moments, we are setting ourselves up for making higher quality decisions.
Research has shown we not only know the quality of our decisions, but the rested mind is able to handle problems more creatively and solve more complex problems (Baird, 2012; Dijksterhuis, 2006). It turns out in the reflective periods, the brain moves to an internal processing mode that is suppressed when we are externally focused. Regularly exercising the internally focused mode increases reading comprehension and divergent thinking (Immordino-Yang, 2012).
If we take this further, like becoming an expert, there is other research that shows the elite among us actually spend less time practicing than the average. After about ten years of deliberate effort, there is a shift that allows those becoming elite to have more focus when they are “on.” To do so, they require having “off” times that allow for recovery (Ericcson et. al., 1993).
Take a cellist. The goal of a beginner is to get to know the instrument and work on getting the notes correct. As one advances, time with the cello is about learning how the practice can be more efficient so you can maximize the time spent. For the elite, the practice is about the interpretation of the music. The elites already know the mechanics and the process that works best for them. They are now working that process. The time “off” the instrument is about researching the score, understanding the composer’s intent, investigating how others have performed the piece, and planning how this performance will be authentic to the cellist (Moore, 2021).
In 2016, Yo-Yo Ma spoke to a group at the New England Conservatory of Music about his practice. Once he has the concept of how he wants to perform the music, he goes to the cello to try it. He then reflects on how it went. “Whenever I don’t feel at ease, I can tell. Let’s try and make it secure so the mind is free to…make choices at the time they’re performing. You’re free to respond to anything that comes your way, so you can actually have a conversation with the orchestra and the conductor. It’s freedom in the mind, so you can physically do whatever you need to do. I think that’s really why we practice” (CelloBello, 2017).
We need to give ourselves moments and experiences that will allow us to perform well when we are called upon. We readily expect a recovery period for professionals so they will perform better at a concert or on game day. We often don’t grant the same idea to ourselves when we prepare and face our own mental performance days.
What if we did approach our lives that way? What if we looked at what we did today as if it was in preparation for a big game? Would we not want to follow a regime that included moments of intentional reflection to recover and assess how things were progressing?
If this resonates with you, I hope that you will follow this weekly article series over the next couple of months as I share excerpts of my book, Natural Reflectors. The next article in the series, Can Reflection and Action Coexist?, can be found here. The previous article in the series, The Making of the Cult of Action, can be found here.
For more information, connect with me at @jennifer.theblacklab or my website www.jenniferpeavey.com.
Natural Reflectors is published as of August 30, 2021. Here’s the link to snag your own copy! https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09DFNLLDW
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Baechu Kimchi. “What is Kimchi? A Brief Science of Lacto-Fermentation.” Accessed March 12, 2021. https://baechukimchi.ca/kimchi-and-lacto-fermentation/.
Baird, Benjamin, Jonathan Smallwood, Michael D. Mrazek, Julia W. Y. Kam, Michael S. Franklin, and Jonathan W. Schooler. “Inspired by Distraction: Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation.” Psychological Science 23, no. 10 (October 2012): 1117–22. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612446024.
CelloBello. “Yo-Yo Ma interview: On Practicing.” October 23, 2017. Video, 5:45. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsnrWNYMFvI.
Dijksterhuis, Ap, Maarten W. Bos, Loran F. Nordgren, and Rick B. Van Baaren. “On Making the Right Choice: The Deliberation-Without-Attention Effect.” Science 311, no. 5763 (February 17, 2006): 1005–7. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1121629.
Ericcson, K. Anders, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer. “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.” Psychological Review 100, no. 3 (1993): 363–406. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.190327.
Immordino-Yang, Mary Helen, Joanna A. Christodoulou, and Vanessa Singh. “Rest Is Not Idleness: Implications of the Brain’s Default Mode for Human Development and Education.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 7, no. 4 (July 2012): 352–64. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691612447308.
Moore, Eric. “Unpacking Yo-Yo Ma’s practice routine — part 1 of 2.” Cello Loft. Accessed March 12, 2021. https://www.celloloft.com/blog/practice-like-yo-yo-ma-1.