With all the attention mindfulness has been getting, it seems like heresy to even ask the question. But a recent New York Times article, “Actually, Let’s Not Be In the Moment,” may well leave you wondering if we’re overthinking this whole thinking thing.
The truth is, mindfulness, like anything, can become a trend that gets oversimplified or watered down and ultimately leads to the type of cynical view that’s presented in this article. But rather than throw away the entire concept, it seems like it makes more sense to consider what aspects of mindfulness can truly benefit us and then to focus in on those.
In my view, metacognition—thinking about our thinking—is really what’s important. That’s how we learn to manage what is happening in our heads versus just letting things happen to us. It means you’re in control. It doesn’t, however, mean you’re hyper-conscious of every thought, action and reflex. There are times when it’s perfectly fine or even smarter to run on “autopilot” with your thinking.
The flow state you get into when you’re out for a run or even mowing the lawn, for example, changes your mental state and actually leads you to more creative ideas. So intentionally getting into that flow state from time to time can make sense. Ned Herrmann did it. He used his early morning time before he was fully awake, as well as his just-falling-asleep time in the evenings as a “theta break” to generate the key ideas that ended up in the first edition of The Whole Brain Business Book. To give my brain a break from the intensely active thinking that goes on all day, I take occasional walking breaks outside to shift my thinking and put my brain into cruise control for a moment.
Don’t Lose Your Mind: 3 Key Thinking Hacks
You can reframe mindfulness as an opportunity to pay attention to what your mind is doing and how it is doing it. Because today’s world is so full of information flowing in at us nonstop, it’s easy to lose track of what’s going on in your head, and that makes it even easier to fall into unproductive or self-destructive habits.
Think about it: Have you ever felt mentally exhausted at the end of the day even though you never really had a chance to “think” at all during the day? Being mindful of where your thinking time goes is the best way to take advantage of the flexibility your brain provides you and to better manage what you do to your brain all day! Just like we intentionally pay attention to how we are using our muscles, we can and should do the same for our brains.
This doesn’t have to be so complicated that it becomes counterproductive. If you’re looking for some simple ways to be more mindful and deliberate about your thinking, try these 3 thinking hacks:
1. Take Stop and Re-Think Breaks: I learned years ago that we scheduled meetings for 30- or 60-minute time blocks because our computer systems are set up that way! Most of the time, we don’t need a full hour or even an half hour. At Herrmann we now set meetings for 20 (vs. 30) or 50 (vs. 60) minutes to allow for a mental recharge at the end of the call and before another meeting or call.
Try it: Instead of letting your calendar program decide how long your meetings are, take back control! Then use your ten extra minutes for a “Stop and Re-Think” break. You might take a walk outside, do a stretch, meditate or read something. It all depends on what you think your brain needs most at that moment.
2. Log Your Thinking Time: I recently started a new program at the gym where you log your activity each time you go. We can do that for our thinking as well to see where the time is going. Pay attention to how you are using your brain for a few days. Then review your calendar and/or jot down what you did mentally as well as how you felt. What were the consequences of how you spent your mental resources during those days? How did it impact you, your work, your energy? What can you learn from that?
Next, block specific time on your calendar for “thinking” so that you can go deeper than you might and get some great cognitive insights. Knowledge work, creative tasks and problem solving all require undisturbed focus and intention. At Herrmann we have meeting-free Mondays for this purpose, but even before we instituted that policy, I blocked thinking time on my calendar on a regular basis.
Keep in mind, this is actual work—prepare for it, structure it and take notes from your insights.
3. Work in Some Thinking Gymnastics: To change things up, try out some new techniques to see how they work for you. Never tried to meditate? Give it a try, and don’t feel like you have to be perfect at it. Just get quiet for a few minutes without any outside input. No time to read for pleasure? Build that back in! Want to have more time for “free thinking” with others? One group started a “Yellow Thinking” club that meets periodically to brainstorm new ideas with others. The point is to be intentional about it. Make the decision to be deliberate and take advantage of the flexibility your brain has to offer you.
There’s always the chance that a concept will become overly trendy and get simplified down to a level of ridiculousness. Don’t get caught up in the hype, but don’t ignore or discount the very obvious benefits either. Instead, focus on the fact that you are in charge of where your mental time goes. Get to know how your mind works and, just as important, how to make it work better for you. That’s the essence of what we’re talking about when we talk about mindfulness.
And just think: You might surprise yourself at what a great thinker you can be!
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