By Thomas Rosenberg, Organisational Psychologist

Time outs – time to reflect. They come in many shapes and sizes: staring with blank eyes into the sky – doing nothing, meditation, a nap, walking the Camino, doodling, focused breathing, listening to music, taking a shower, a trip around the world and so on. Their time frames can also be very different, lasting seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months or even years.

Time outs can boost creativity. (Re)establish direction and meaning. Even save lives, as I saw at a recent Crisis Management course for Oil & Gas leaders working at offshore installations in the North Sea. But if time outs are so great for a lot of things, then why don’t we use them more deliberately – and more often?

One can say that the lack of systematic use of time outs has to do with a pathological aspect of business (and society): when we are under pressure we spinn the wheel faster and faster instead of slowing it down. We don’t allow ourselves to pause, step back and consider what the best response might be: “It is as if everything is moving way to quickly, and we are sitting with the nose squeezed all the way up against the windscreen. We have no visibility, and we are doomed for collision” (Willig, 2014).

Time outs are in other words difficult to handle. We tend to forget that they are an option. Especially in stressful situations where time outs are most needed. It seems as if the situation creates a “force field”, where we as individuals, groups or organizations get stuck in a death spiral of unreflective behaviour and thinking. What we need is an “emergency escape” from the present situation. Something that will help us create a temporary mental (and physical) retreat for reflection. One might talk about a shift between realities. A vivid example of such a reality shift (between two parallel worlds) is described in Murakami’s novel 1Q84: When the taxi gets stuck in a traffic jam, the driver suggests that one of the main characters, Aomame, get out of the car and climb down an emergency escape in order to make her important meeting, though he warns her that doing so might change the very nature of reality. Isn’t this exactly what a time out should do: change the very nature of reality – or at least provide us with alternative options that were not available in the present situation?

Also, time outs are often problematic from a traditional organisational standpoint, because they are seen as unproductive time. “Face time” or “screen time”, where employees are physically present, looking like they are actually doing something producive, is, unfortunately, still the one thing that is valued the most in many organisations.

This brings us to the following essential question: How can we design organisational environments and routines that help us remember that it is time for a time out – that help us muster the courage to stop and reflect?

Well, one way of doing this is by using nudging and behavioural design as tools for helping individuals, teams and organisations establish an effective “time out architecture” and behaviour. It sounds easy, but it requires a thorough understanding of the specific situations in which time outs are needed and the identification and development – through rigorous experimentation – of the most effective time out nudges and behavioural design solutions.

The interplay between the development of “system/process nudges” (new organisational habits, structures and strategies in connection with e.g. meetings, breaks, conflicts, deadlines, training exercises or creativity and innovation work) and “physical design nudges” (e.g. designated “time out zones”) – could be a potential path worth following when building time out capabilities.

Maybe we could learn something from performance artists like Marina Abramovic. She uses space, time, body and relationship to explore new possibilities, perspectives, feelings and thoughts. In her “The Artist Is Present” –  a 736-hour and 30-minute static, silent piece, she is sitting immobile in the museum’s atrium while spectators are invited to take turns sitting opposite her – just sitting and engaging in neutral gaze – establishing a connection without words. 

It turned out that this minimalistic behavioural design had the potential to change “the very nature of reality”. People started connecting with themselves on a new level. And this only through a behavioural design that supported silence and neutral gaze. What if all organisations had a “The Artist Is Present Room”, where teams and coworkers could meet in silence for a time out? What would such a behavioural design do for our ability to reestablish direction and meaning, solve conflicts and potential catastrophes and boost creativity?

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