Nelson Mandela Missed the Time to Think that Prison Provided

Today, I added an opening quotation to a chapter in Cognitive Productivity that deals with challenges knowledge workers face in their quest to use knowledge to become profoundly effective. <1> The section in question deals with demands on our time. A distinctive feature of humans is the amount and kinds of mental processing that can take place between stimulus (information) and response. But how can we produce great cognitive products if we don’t sufficiently exploit our own mental abilities? This means we need to disconnect ourselves from the Internet firehose several times a week and create quiet time for ourselves… time to integrate what we have read, select problems of understanding to address, and provide solutions to them in the form of knowledge that will guide subsequent action.

Here follows an excerpt from Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective

Demands on our time

[Nelson Mandela] actually said sometimes in the later years that he missed prison. I would say, ‘how could you think that?’ but he would say that at least in prison he had time to think. He was so overwhelmed by the world, he found it very difficult to have quiet time to just think and contemplate things.
Zelda la Grange

We professional knowledge workers often find ourselves under potentially stultifying time pressures. Management and customers are demanding. Knowledge work can be very competitive. We are promoted and assigned new responsibilities. Some of us have family who demand our time and attention.  At home, we are the IT experts, repeatedly called upon to troubleshoot and educate. Nowadays, each of our techno-dependents has multiple devices to manage. Contrary to popular belief, young people—even university students—are normally not technology wizards. So the IT burden on knowledge workers at home is significant. It’s even heavier when the family relies upon a poorly designed operating system and software.

Technology interrupts and distracts us. Email, social networking services, text messaging, audio-messaging, cell phones, land phones, etc. In addition, we sometimes have to deal with multiple, poorly designed websites. Many web pages are littered with advertisements. 

The IT burden, interruptions and distractions do not merely consume time, they fatigue us in ways that many socio-recreational activities do not. Again, these problems are not “rewiring our brains”. We can address them by using the best technology available, helping our IT dependents to become independent, and using productive information processing strategies.

For many knowledge workers, ironically, the major obstacle to their professional development is their work. Their employers or circumstances keep them so narrowly focused on short-term deliverables that they feel they don’t have enough time left over to improve and prepare themselves for the future. That is an exasperating experience for effectant people. It  can lead to frustration, depression and turnover.  It can also lead to obsolescence. To develop their full potential, knowledge workers need to ensure that they create sufficient opportunities to meaningfully and efficiently research and develop. 

Parts 2 and 3 of Cognitive Productivity

Part 2 of Cognitive Productivity presents a rich body of cognitive science that is relevant to solving the cognitive challenges knowledge workers face. Part 3 presents solutions to these problems, including a large collection of tips for using technology to improve ourselves and the quality of our work.

Thinking time

Speaking of thinking time: I’ve set aside this Sunday afternoon for some “knowledge building”: To outline a paper on concepts from broad cognitive science that can be helpful to psychotherapists and those seeking to develop themselves with knowledge.


1. I discovered this gem about Nelson Mandela in an article by Brett Throop of CBC News in which he quotes Zelda la Grange. She was the personal secretary to Nelson Mandela. She recently released Good Morning, Mr. Mandela: A Memoir.

Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

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