Deep focus and mindfulness meditation are often cited as ingredients for peak performance, creativity, and well-being. While you can’t really deny the benefits of focus and mindfulness for busy creatives, psychological research indicates that periods of mindlessness are also needed to perform at your peak.
According to a fascinating interview with cognitive scientists Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener conducted by Melissa Dahl of New York magazine's Science of Us column, many people these days are taking mindfulness — the ability to tether your thoughts to the present moment — too far.
“One of the biggest misconceptions people have about mindfulness is that you can train yourself to stay in this mindful state all of the time,” Kashdan said. “And you can’t.”
“God, and why would you even want to?” Biswas-Diener added. “Oh my God, that sounds horrible.”
Apparently, periods of mindlessness bring many benefits that are often overlooked, like creative thinking and personal problem-solving, argue the cognitive scientists in their book The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self—Not Just Your “Good Self”—Drives Success and Fulfillment.
Mindlessness Improves Creative Thinking, Problem-solving
Some studies portray mindlessness, mind-wondering, or zoning out in a negative light, often terming it as a failure of cognitive control. But, people still do it about 50% of the time. If it’s really as terrible as has been suggested, it wouldn’t make any sense – evolutionarily speaking – that we naturally spend so much of our time lost in our own thoughts.
“Most cognitive scientists tend to view mind-wandering as, you give people a task to do — like reading comprehension or some IQ task — and they say mind-wandering are all those thoughts that occur in our minds that aren’t relative to the task at hand, to the current goals,” Kaufman said. “But that totally assumes that there’s no value to the person’s own goals.”
In reality, when we mind-wonder – by choice or by accident – we tend to be pulled to the consideration of unresolved issues, or to the planning of future goals. And it is during that spaced-out moment that creative insight happens. You’ve probably experienced a eureka! moment in the shower—this is why.
“We’re not consciously able to do that in an effective way,” Kashdan said. “When we’re zoning out, really what this is, is the incubation period of creativity.” This is where ideas you never would have consciously connected seem to come together—on their own.
Find a Balance between Mindfulness and Mindlessness
Of course, merely letting yourself zone out isn’t always going to spur brilliant solutions to problems. You really even shouldn’t always try to solve your problem by purposely not solving it. However, forcing yourself to be hyper-focused and mindful at all times can actually make you less effective overall.
So, try to find a sweet balance between mindfulness and mindlessness. Heed the inspiration and wisdom of the mindfulness moment, but don't go overboard and don't beat yourself up if you find yourself zoning out or daydreaming for significant portions of your day. That mix could be the secret ingredient that helps you perform at your peak.
Check out this video that explains why zoning out is good for you.