Breon Michel, MAPP '08, teaches, coaches, and writes about mind/body resilience. After undergoing several years of training with Jon Kabat-Zinn and Saki Santorelli at U Mass Medical's Center for Mindfulness, Breon is privileged to teach Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Her passion is to support women leaders to use mindfulness to overcome fear, sustain meaning, and avoid burnout in their personal and professional lives. Her blog is called The H.U.B. (Harness Ur Being). Breon's articles are here.
When do you have your greatest insights? Do they arrive when you’re intensely focused on a goal or solution? Or, do they tend to emerge when you’re calm and relaxed?
Funny thing is, we tend to do exactly what the research tells us not to do.Common Practice versus Research
For example, let’s say you’ve been asked to submit a proposal to a prospective client. It’s late in the day and you’re just beginning to fill in your company’s background information, but you can’t seem to coherently string together your ideas. You begin to get frustrated. Instead of calling it a day, or, at the very least, taking a break, you stay at your desk and force yourself to keep at it until you arrive at a “perfectly” clear and concise response.
Now, let’s flip to what the research tells us. Even though it seems like a great idea at the time to push yourself to the nth degree, this kind of extreme focus and control can greatly undermine your ability to achieve the outcome you desire most, a clear, concise, and creative response.
As a matter of fact, research by Daniel Wegner, a psychology professor at Harvard, explains the nuances of this dilemma. Daniel adopted a theory called ironic process, which suggests that the mind will unconsciously search for an unwanted mental state. In this instance, we accidentally engender a narrow, limiting perspective when we pour energy into fostering a creative mindset.Along the same lines, neuroscience research has shown we have our greatest moments of insight and creativity when the mind is calm and relaxed. You probably didn’t need me to remind you of that! Have you ever had a moment of clarity or insight in the shower? What about while spending time in nature? Isn’t it ironic that withdrawing your focus from the goal or problem actually facilitates insight?
Using Moments of Stress to Remember to be Calm
I recognize many of us are required, all right maybe conditioned, to spend heaps of time at our computers, but this truly isn’t where our greatest moments of insight occur. One of the best things you can do is give your mind – and your brain – a break from such a diligent outward focus. Allow it to rest and recover the same way you would your biceps if you were engaging in a strength-training regime.
When I first discovered this research, it caused me to reflect on my own work habits. I could see places where I’d unknowingly fallen into the trap of overworking and overthinking in an attempt to cross one more thing off my to-do list. After becoming aware of this habit, I began to use moments of stress, rushing, and confusion as reminders to slow down, take a breather, and draw my attention inward. Sometimes I would step outdoors to feel the breeze on my skin or listen to the cacophony of birds. Other times, I’d simply close my eyes and feel the natural rhythm of my breath. In any case, I discovered that allowing myself to shift my focus away from the task at hand naturally brought on a sense of ease that facilitated greater insight down the road.Consider Doing the Opposite of What’s Expected
Certain work habits run deep in our culture. To name a few: Work ourselves to exhaustion, don’t take breaks, stare down a problem until you reach a solution, multitask, and do more in less time. Sometimes these habits are both necessary and effective. But more times than not, I see people unconsciously operating from these principles without carefully considering the impact on their inner state and outer performance.
Upon asking if such habits enhance efficiency or effectiveness, most immediately respond with a “No.” So while my advice may seem a little odd, I do believe that we can both quiet stress and enhance creative problem solving by doing the exact opposite of what we think we should do. Namely, ease up on yourself about checking everything off your to-do list, take breaks (I mean, really take them), shift your focus away from a complex problem before settling on a solution, unitask, and slow down every once in a while!
Wegner, D. M., Schneider, D. J., Carter, S., & White, T. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 5-13.
Wegner, D. M. & Pennebaker, J. W. (1992). The Handbook Of Mental Control. Pearson.
Wegner, D. M. (2011). Setting free the bears:Escape from thought suppression. American Psychologist,66, 671-680.