What could you discover about your life and work if you spent two days not doing any thinking or planning of any kind?
What if, instead of goal setting, mind mapping and strategizing, you simply stop doing any thinking at all?
As it turns out sometimes that’s exactly what your mind needs, as I found out first hand.
As we rush through our busy lives getting things done, the thinking and planning part of our prefrontal cortex brain is usually in charge. This is our executive function – it manages, prioritises and gets things ticked off the to-do list.
According to Rick Hanson, Neuropsychologist and New York Times Best seller, this part is determined to a fault, running things top-down like a dictator, ignoring bottom-up signals of growing frustration, fatigue, and irritability. While this part of our brain is in full swing, it’s superior power can suppress messages sent from other very important parts of our brain and our body.
According to neuroscience and mindfulness research if we can find a way every now and again to give our prefrontal cortex some time off, and connect with other parts of our brain, we create space to listen to what else is around, and by doing this we open ourselves up the opportunity for more perspective, clarity and insight. And when it comes to our careers, future plans and decision making, sometimes perspective, clarity and insight are just what we need to move forward.
Armed with this knowledge, I recently took the opportunity to put this to the test by spending two days attending a mindfulness retreat. The purpose was simple – spend time all on your own and also in the quiet company of others, with the intention of doing this as mindfully as possible. It involved very little talking, no to do lists, no technology, and no formal planning of any kind. In fact we were encouraged to tune out of the thinking, doing part of our brain and simply be aware of the present moment as much as possible.
Many of us walked away with some very useful insights – career and otherwise – all from doing, well, not much. Here are some of my insights:-
• Noise can hide the truth. Technology creates a dizzying amount of noise in our lives. It’s easy to be consumed for hours day and night by an enticing smorgasbord of email, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIN, TV, Instagram, Pinterest, news, and blogs, the offering is endless. Two days without it is an interesting experiment. No go-to instant distraction device to whip out at any moment that things get tough. What I realized was that back in the real world, the seductive pull of technology will often win over fronting up to any uncomfortable thoughts or feelings. It beckons us, a welcome distraction, diverting us away from having to face up to how we might be really feeling about lots of things, including our jobs, our boss, and the work we do.
• Sometimes the best way to make a decision is stop thinking about it. Successful people often talk in some way about the importance of following your gut, or listening to your intuition. We now know our intuition has to do with a part of our brain known as the basal ganglia. It’s a primitive part of our subconscious that tells us things with feelings, and has a strong connection to the emotional centre of our brain. Usually we notice this as a gut feeling of right or wrong. Malcom Gladwells book Blink illustrates this beautifully, describing an experiment in which card players intuitively select certain winning cards over others, long before they are able to verbally explain the reason for their choices. This experiment demonstrated the brains two decision making strategies – our conscious ‘thinking and deciding’ strategy, and our less understood subconscious strategy. In our complex and busy world it’s easy to lose touch with our natural built in decision maker, our intuition, and spending time alone helps to create the space and bandwidth to tune back in.
• Rediscover whats really important. The answers may not all suddenly come crashing in, but you may get a deeper understanding for what you really care about, which will guide your decision making. Knowing what’s really important to us, and what’s not, is one of the most helpful things you can do for your career. Time alone can create enough space for your core principles or values to bubble back up to the surface. From space can also come a sense for the things that you naturally enjoy doing, things you can’t wait to get back to because they energise you. If you are lucky some of these things will already be part of your job, and if not it gives you a chance recognise how enjoyable these activities are and consider ways to bring them into your work in some way.
• You become more aware of your harsh inner critic. Whether it’s making you feel like an imposter in your own career, or affecting your confidence with future choices, the truth is most of us have a ruthless critic in our heads sending us unhelpful thoughts and worries, which can stop us from moving forward. Two days alone with this endless pessimist gives you a chance to get to know it quite well and to understand its effect on your mood if you let it stay around for too long, and allows you to recognise it for what it is – a temporary thought, not the truth.
As it turns out there is a lot you can learn about yourself and your future path by spending large chunks of time not thinking about it at all, and instead applying techniques that open up your mind, creating space and clarity. It’s becoming clearer why practices like mindfulness are so popular. They provide the perfect antidote to our increasingly busy, complex, technology-fueled, and often fragmented lives. There is also an increasing number of scientific studies emerging that validate the positive impact on the brain when we spend time in this way.
Of course let us not forget that when it comes to executing, and turning our valuable insights into tangible actions, it’s a very good thing we have the big boss of the brain our thinking executive function to pick up the reins and lead the charge.