As soon as you saw the title of this post, you knew what I meant. An efficient abbreviation borrowed from the U.S. military, ASAP is now generally understood across disciplines and industries. When your boss sends you an email that reads, “I need to hear back from you ASAP,” you drop everything else and attend to the request.
We are a culture that loves to get things done, well, ASAP. Between emails, direct deposits, texts and a myriad of other technologies, we’ve essentially abolished the need to wait for anything. Except at the DMV.
Usually, this works out great for us and for our coworkers and customers. But that’s only when the answer or solution is apparent at first glance. The problem with living in an ASAP culture is that not all of our challenges can be solved with a half-hour meeting and a few three sentence emails.
We work and live in a world where many situations are complex and intricate—whether that’s negotiating contracts and company mergers or trying to come up with a new way to keep the interest of a room full of fifth graders. And, as I’m sure you’ve experienced, sometimes the first solution that strikes you is not always the best solution. ASAP decisions run the risk of completely missing out on a factor or a detail that might further complicate our entire project.
As I thought about this problem I came across an article about Harvard professor of humanities Jennifer L. Roberts. In an art history class Roberts asked each of her students to choose one painting to be the subject of their term paper. Part of completing the assignment was to visit the painting (in person, if possible) and study it for three hours.
As you can imagine, her students were not exactly thrilled at the idea of staring at a single work of art for the better part of an afternoon. And, as someone who is easily distracted by shiny things, I am positive that I would have failed Professor Roberts’ art history class.
However, for the brave souls that did attempt the assignment, something interesting happened. The students reported that as they studied the paintings, they began to notice details that, while they didn’t seem important at first, were actually critical to understanding and appreciating the work. For many of them, this dramatically changed the focus and direction of their term papers. Roberts explained it this way, “…there are details and orders and relationships that take time to perceive.”
Although Roberts is referring to art, I believe the same principle is true in our professional environments. There are details and orders and relationships that take time to perceive. Think about starting a new job. For at least the first two weeks you are overwhelmed with learning how to do your assignments within the context of a new company. You’re learning your way around a new office. You’re figuring out a computer program or network that you’ve never used before. And on top of all that, you’re trying to navigate the interpersonal relationships of your new coworkers. It may take you weeks before you figure out how to use the copy machine!
I believe that when it comes to finding solutions or making big decisions, we don’t need to rush. What if we looked at these situations like one of the art students? You may not have three hours to think about a problem, but I bet you could find ten or fifteen minutes to jot down some ideas. And you may be surprised at the details and relationships that slowly come to light as you put the brakes on for a few minutes.