Why mindlessness, the art of not paying attention, can make us better problem solvers
Think of it as removing the proverbial mental leash – mindlessness gives your brain the chance to wander, giving room for creative thought. And it’s much easier than being mindful all the time
We hear about “mindfulness” a lot these days.
We are encouraged to eat mindfully so as to better appreciate the flavours of our food. We are taught to practise mindfulness when we are stressed to connect with how we are feeling. We are urged to be mindful when communicating with others so as to be truly present for them.
An element of Buddhist tradition, mindfulness is not a new concept. Simply described, it is a form of self-awareness training that is geared towards helping us in our everyday life, work, relationships and overall well-being.
It is a reminder to be fully aware of what is happening within and around us at any given moment. Used correctly and regularly, the technique is said to help relieve stress and anxiety, improve sleep, reduce chronic pain, elevate our mood, and more. And in a world where most of us live hectic lives on autopilot, there is nothing more grounding than being completely aware of our experiences as they occur from moment to moment.
But having to be fully aware and present all the time can get exhausting after a while. Who wants to spend their entire meal focusing on the flavours and textures of their food and paying attention to what their stomachs are telling them? And where is the pleasure in talking to someone if you are concentrating so hard on the words you choose and on how their words are making you feel?
Mindfulness is a skill, and it is hardly surprising that it can feel draining – skills take time to develop and require dedication to perfect.
So it might be time to give “mindlessness” a try. The opposite of mindfulness, mindlessness is touted as just as beneficial to our physical and emotional well-being, but is much easier to put into practice.
“Mindlessness is when you’re not really paying attention to what you’re doing,” says Dr Joyce Chao, a clinical psychologist at Dimensions Centre in Hong Kong’s Central district. “We all have moments of mindlessness throughout the day, when we’re not in full connection with ourselves or what we’re doing, when there’s no intention of awareness.”
Chao says that being intentionally mindless can be helpful. “I like to use this analogy of a dog on a leash. If it is leashed it can only travel so far. But if you unleash it, it can wander wherever it wants and get to fully explore its surroundings. That’s similar to how mindlessness works – it’s like removing the proverbial mental leash so as to free up your mind and give it the chance to wander.”
There are certainly benefits to “mind-wandering”, as medical experts call it. A 2012 study in the journal Psychological Science found that mind-wandering could serve as a foundation for creative inspiration and even help with creative problem-solving.
Another study, published the same year in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, found that when we let go of the present and allow our minds to wander, we improve our ability to prioritise long-term goals over short-term wants. As a result, we are able to see the “big picture” and can plan better for the future.
“Intentional mindlessness is a healthy disengagement from whatever we are doing,” Chao says. “Sometimes, creating distance or disengaging from something can be good for you. By freeing up mental space and allowing your mind to wander, you can make room for creative thought.”
Chao says our best ideas often come to us when we are thinking about, or doing things, that are completely unrelated to tasks or problems at hand. “For example, there are people who find solutions to their problems or get good ideas while they’re showering or gardening and not focused on their problems or work at all. On the other hand, you can sit at your desk for hours trying to think of solutions or ideas, and come up with nothing.”
Mindlessness is the state that many of us find ourselves in when we are engaged in activities that are monotonous, repetitive and not emotionally taxing. Cooking, folding laundry, organising our desk or wardrobe, running – most of us would consider these to be mindless activities.
Heather Salenger enjoys the mental break offered by engaging in mindless activities. The busy 44-year-old says that she often “zones out” by flipping through tabloid magazines, petting her cats, and making origami animals or flowers.
“These activities require little to no focus, so my mind is free to daydream and think about nothing in particular. And when I’m done, I find that creative ideas come to me better, I’m more alert and energetic, and I feel so much more relaxed.”
For 44-year-old Vera Koh, cooking and baking are a chance for her to relieve emotional stress.
“I love the repetition and rhythm involved with kneading dough and whisking eggs,” she says. “Being an experienced cook and baker, these aren’t tasks that demand much of me, but I love how they make me feel. While my hands are moving my mind shifts to other random things or switches off completely. And for a short while I’m able to disengage myself mentally and unwind.”
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to practising mindlessness, but it is important to note that the concept is different from the inability to be mindful.
“It’s also not about avoiding your thoughts or pushing certain thoughts away,” Chao says. “And like most psychology concepts and ideas, the benefits of mindlessness depend on a variety of factors, from the context it is used in to how frequently and intensely it is used.”