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Why Mindfulness Is Overrated

Mindfulness has its upsides, but the human brain isn’t wired to be so attentive all the time.

Why Mindfulness Is Overrated
[Photo: Flickr user Takumi Yoshida; Inline photos: Flickr user Khánh Hmoong]

The shower might be the most creative place on Earth. Every day, people stop mid-rinse, struck by a sudden burst of creativity. Yet the idea of “aha!” moments stands in stark contrast to the current popularity of mindfulness–which has spun out of control.

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Mindfulness is the act of focusing attention and observing the present moment without a lot of mental dialogue and interpretation. It’s true that mindfulness practice is beneficial in a variety of ways, leading to increased stamina, enhanced working memory, and reduced stress, to name just three. This is why mindfulness is quickly becoming a buzzword in leadership development. It’s becoming so widespread, in fact, that there is even a Mindful Leadership for Dummies book.

The Benefits Of (Real) Break-Time

Despite the benefits of mental control and a strong focus, though, there are limits as well. Just because it’s generally healthy to engage in physical exercise doesn’t mean you ought to play nine hours of tennis each day. Similarly, the human brain isn’t wired to be constantly attentive. We need periods of mind-wandering and daydreaming.

Spacing out lets your brain get the rest it so desperately needs. In fact, Marcus Raichle, a neuroscience researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, has argued for years that the default state of the brain is daydreaming. Daydreams, in turn, are less frivolous flights of fancy than you might guess. They provide the raw material from which we construct our ideas, identities, and goals.

If the brain is active–as it appears to be–even while in its resting state (say, while you’re swinging in a hammock), then what’s actually happening in there? The answer is “incubation.” That’s essentially when your mind is busy tackling a problem subconsciously. Rather than expending effort, such as writing out a well-articulated strategy for the day, incubation involves distraction, lack of conscious effort, and even “sleeping on it.”

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Benjamin Baird, a psychologist from the University of California–Santa Barbara, led a study dealing with the role of incubation in creativity. Using a common research paradigm, Baird’s team asked participants to generate as many “unusual uses for” an item, such as a brick, as they possibly could. The lists test subjects came up with were then scored not only for the number of ideas but also for their uniqueness.

The researchers were interested in how taking a break might influence creativity. To do this they pitted regular incubation against “demanding incubation” (instead of switching off, participants had to engage in a tough memory task) and a full-throttle creativity condition where participants were forced to keep plugging away at their creative task without pause. In the end, taking a break–a real, mentally relaxing one–led to an increase in creativity. This suggests that folks at work who opt for pseudo-breaks–checking email, for instance–don’t extract the full benefits of mindlessness.

In Praise of Mindlessness

In all fairness, mindlessness is no more a panacea than is mindfulness. There are two particular drawbacks concerning mind-wandering and “aha!” moments. First, by definition, mind-wandering means not paying attention. It’s this type of psychological autopilot that lets you drive to the grocery store but end up in the parking lot of your child’s school. Second, “aha!” moments have a way of making people feel as if their insights are amazingly useful. Information that’s that easy to access, like the name of your dog or the last book you finished, sometimes feels more valuable than the other options considered at the time–what you didn’t name your dog or the book you chose not to read.

This means when you come up with a new product name, or experience a gut reaction about your coworkers’ response to something at work, it will feel right. But it’s prudent to put that feeling to the test. Collect additional information and ask trusted peers to ensure those initial ideas actually have the value you sense they do.

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The best, it appears, is a combination of both types of problem solving. Mindfulness and mindlessness should coexist. You benefit from the lightning-strike of creativity, but then you want to be able to analyze the potential and drawbacks of your spontaneous ideas.

This is what seems to have happened in the case of Dan Wieden, cofounder of the advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy. He had a flash of inspiration for a slogan that might be appropriate for his client, Nike, but then stayed up all night arduously comparing his five best ideas. In the end, of course, he went with, “Just Do It”–a motto for mindlessness if there ever was one.

Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is a psychologist, researcher, and professional trainer. Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a psychologist, professor of psychology, and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. Their new book is The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self—Not Just Your “Good” Self—Drives Success And Fulfillment.

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