Why You Should Take Time to Not Think

Posted 01.19.2015

Ah, the third week of the new year. The holiday break is an increasingly distant speck in the rearview mirror and we’re all back up to our eyeballs in work. And, of course, our brains are working overtime trying to churn through and process everything we have to do. Gotta’ stay focused, right? There’s too much to do to just let your mind wander.

That’s the wrong call. Let your mind wander. Not all of the time, but at least a few times a day. If you can’t imagine doing that a few times a day, at least take a few breaks during the week to give your mind time to not actively think about a problem you’re trying to solve or a project you’re trying to finish.

Here’s why.

Your brain needs time for unconscious thought. As I cite in my latest book, Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative, research by Kellogg School of Management professor Loran Nordgren and his Dutch colleague Ap Dijksterhuis shows that the best decision making and problem solving comes from a mix of conscious and unconscious thought.

I was reminded of this over the past week as my own workload has ramped up again as the new year moves into full swing. Two quick examples of how taking time to not think helped me think better. The first came last Friday afternoon. After a full week of travel, meetings, presentations and writing, Diane, my wife and business partner, and I got out of the office at 3:00 pm on Friday for our weekly recap. We retreated to a nice spot with a couple of cold drinks and, with no expectation of outcomes, started talking about the past couple of weeks. It was an informal recap of what’s been going on, things that have hit our radar screens, things that we need to do but haven’t done yet. Then I started talking about a podcast I’ve been listening to this year called Startup. It’s by a guy named Alex Blumberg who is documenting the real time adventures of his efforts to start up a new podcasting company. I’ve been listening to that and a few other podcasts this year. It was on my list of things to do in 2015. I didn’t really know why. It just felt like something I should do. I started talking with Diane about what’s been happening with Alex on the show and then started talking about what all of the really good podcasts I’ve been listening to seem to have in common (strong narrative, natural conversation, great production values). Then we started talking about how if we were going to do a podcast series what it would be about and how we’d go about it.

The germ of a new idea came about from a conversation where we were thinking but not really thinking. We didn’t have a conscious plan to talk about podcasting during our recap but a lot of unconscious thinking led us in that direction. My second quick example of this same phenomenon is the blog post you’re reading now. Honestly, when I woke up this morning I had no idea what Mindful Monday was going to be about today. I could have sat down at my computer and tried to grind something out. Experience has taught me that I’d still be there two hours later with maybe half a page of crud on my screen. So, instead of hitting the keyboard, I meditated for 20 minutes. I didn’t start the meditation session with the intent of “Come up with a Mindful Monday topic.” I just went into it with the intention of focusing on my breathing for 20 minutes. Of course, very few people can focus on their breathing for 20 minutes without their mind wandering. That’s expected. It definitely happens to me all the time. The point is to notice when it’s wandering and then bring your mind back to your breathing. Somewhere in the middle of all that unconscious thinking, the idea for this post appeared.

Sound like magic? It’s not really. I’m willing to bet you’ve experienced the same thing yourself lots of times in your life. Here’s how to prove it to yourself. Stop and consider where or when you get your best ideas. If you’re like most people I talk with your answers will be things like when I’m taking a shower, when I’m doing yard work, when I’m commuting or when I’m out for a run. You’re likely not thinking, “At my desk in front of my computer.” The reason is all of those answers like taking a shower and going for a run represent opportunities for unconscious thought. Sitting at your desk in front of your computer represents conscious thought (unless you get sucked into the email/web vortex – that’s just distracted thought).

So, my suggestion for this week (and every other in 2015) is to take some time to not think. It might feel really uncomfortable to give yourself permission to do that. Just give it a try a few times. Go out to lunch without you’re smartphone. Just sit and eat or talk with a friend uninterrupted by the electronics. Go to a movie. (The Imitation Game is great.) Go for a 20 minute electronics free walk. Sit with your eyes closed and breathe for 10 minutes. Watch the traffic for five minutes. It doesn’t really matter what you do, just take some time to not think about what you’re working on.

Try it, see what happens and please let me know with a comment what happened after you stopped thinking.