The benefits of mindlessness

Good’s psycholoy expert Dr Alice Boyes talks about the benefits of mindlessness

Words Dr Alice Boyes. Illustration Janelle Barone, Makers MGMT

Mindfulness gets a lot of positive attention. However, we spend about 50 per cent of our time being mindless – letting our thoughts drift away from the experience we’re currently having. From an evolutionary standpoint, it wouldn’t make sense for humans to spend this much time in this state if it wasn’t beneficial in some way. And in fact, there is plenty of research showing that mindlessness, including snap judgements and mind wandering, is useful to us.  

For complex decisions, use a combination of careful deliberation first, then instinct
In the excellent book, The Upside of Your Darkside, psychologists Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener argue that to make good decisions, try briefly reviewing your choices in a deliberate way, then allow your instincts to guide you. This is particularly relevant when you’re facing a complex decision that involves lots of options and variables; holding all of that information in mind can be overwhelming.

In reality, neither endless amounts of careful consideration nor instinctive judgements in isolation produce the “right” decision 100 per cent of the time, but research has shown that relying on instincts can produce superior choices in some cases, and it’s certainly less mentally taxing. 

Benefits of sleepy states
When people describe themselves as a “morning person” or a “night owl” there’s an implication that the person feels more alert at one end of the day, and are most productive during this time. However, being alert and being productive don’t always coincide. When we’re tired, our inhibitions are reduced and creativity can flow more freely. According to research, people sometimes engage in more authentic conversations when they’re tired. Research on older adults experiencing cognitive decline has shown similar findings. 

The flip side of this is that being tired can increase irritability, but the point is that there are two sides. States seen as having a negative effect on our functioning can also have a positive effect.

How to fully benefit from mindlessness
There’s truth to the clichés that people have ‘lightbulb moments’ while they’re showering, driving or when they wake up in the morning.

To take advantage of thoughts you experience while in mindless states, you need to be ready to capture ideas as you have them. Download a note-taking app on your phone or keep a notebook beside your bed or in your car.  

There’s also an extent to which being ‘under-scheduled’ helps you take advantage of your brain’s mindlessness. You can’t write down the thoughts you’ve had in the shower if you need to rush off. 

Likewise, taking a break and doing something else is often when you can get clarity on something that you were ‘stuck’ on. You can also see blind spots that you may have had when you were concentrating hard
on what you were doing. To take advantage of this, have flexibility and breathing room in your schedule.

Mindfulness and mind wandering aren’t opposites, and both contribute to optimal creativity
Neuroscience researcher Dr Scott Barry Kaufman argues that creativity is enhanced when you’re mindful enough that you’re “aware of your spontaneous thoughts, but not too goal-directed so that you miss out on unexpected connections”. A combination of mindfulness practice and other periods of mind wandering may be the best breeding ground for creativity. Self-compassion is an important part of mindfulness practice and has been clearly shown to increase creativity in self-critical individuals. What doesn’t generally help creativity is ruminative “guilty-dysphoric daydreaming”, which tends to characterise the thinking of people when they’re clinically depressed. 

Psychology expert Dr Alice Boyes is the author of the book, The Anxiety Toolkit

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