A colleague once told me that one day, when she greeted me in a corridor, I looked straight at her and went on my way without so much as a nod. At first I was horrified – I take pride in building relationships, and this was a colleague I greatly liked and respected. But over time I’ve come to recognize that my moments of mind wandering are critical to my ability to be productive and creative.
Now I’m all for mindfulness. I’ve spent a lot of effort over the past few years improving my ability to be present in the moment and aware of my thoughts. Greater mindfulness has brought significant improvements to my life:
• I’m less reactive in situations that used to stress me.
• I take more joy in the small moments of life, and this gives me greater perspective.
• I’m more able to anticipate stress and proactively manage it.
But getting lost in thought – being un-mindful – has its place and usefulness. There are times when trying to find my way to a solution by force of will becomes counterproductive. Sometimes we need to take a break in order to refresh and allow our natural creativity to surface. And this is where un-mindfulness comes in. By allowing your thoughts to wander, you give your brain space, in the background, to work through difficult problems. You’ve probably experienced this when after a walk or casual conversation, you come up with a solution you were struggling to find before
The value is in balancing the times we are mindful with those where we allow our minds to roam. Here are some times when I will choose to be un-mindful:
• When I’m alone and doing a simple physical activity. Waiting for my dog to sniff her way through our evening walks is a great time to let my mind free-associate its way to some of my best ideas.
• The spaces in-between – those moments when I’m on the subway, waiting in line or sitting in a waiting room are ripe for daydreaming. Those few minutes of mental vacation can incubate problems and ideas and, paradoxically, clear my mind of those endless loops of concern.
• Waking up before the alarm: those precious moments before my day begins are the perfect time to let my mind flow over my plans for the day.
This kind of un-mindfulness is not the same as multi-tasking or using my phone as a distraction. It’s a conscious choice to allow my mind free rein, without any props. And it’s a great way to tap into creativity.