guy mind wandering while working

To Wander or Not to Wander? That is The Question – Should we let our minds wander during work?

How many times during the day do you catch yourself off task staring out the window? Is it a case of being off task … or a moment capturing a creative thought?

 A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.

so, says Dr. Daniel Goleman, famed for the EQ movement (What Makes a Leader: Why Emotional Intelligence Matters, 2014).

I am not an expert in neuroscience or EQ, but I can draw upon 30 plus years in management and leadership roles grounded experience to know that there is a direct correlation between brain activity and performance. When our brain activity is low we perform at a low level, our brain is not aroused, boredom sets in and we become disconnected from our work. When our brain activity is high, we also can perform at a low level if we are in a state of what I call ‘frazzlement’. This, or stress, is when we are experiencing an amygdala hijack – when part of our brain (the neocortex) shuts down, normally due to an overwhelming emotional response that triggers a fight, flight, freeze, or fright situation. In either case, our mind wandering means that we are not engaged on the task at hand.

But can’t a wandering mind also be positive?

Yes. In the pursuit of creativity – when we are having a creative insight. There have been many times when I was jogging and that breakthrough moment came. What activity are you doing when your insights come through? And think of successful leaders i.e. Richard Branson, the poster boy for entrepreneurial creativity … how many creative “Ah Ha’s” has he had? In business, lack of creativity forges an “adapt or die” approach. A prime example is Blackberry being disrupted by creative newcomers. BlackBerry was more concerned with protecting what it already had instead of conquering new lands;

9dragons representation of creativity

“so now, with a quiet whimper of irrelevance, BlackBerry departs the smartphone market that it once helped to shape and define. It’s an instructive lesson to any company with less than a billion users of its products or services: no matter how good you may already be, there’s always the potential to do better, and if you’re not willing to change and do the scary new thing, someone else will.” (The Verge, 2016/9/30). You must be able to see the market trends, explore but not for too long and don’t do nothing.

Steve Jobs was a master of exploration. He was good at coming up with the next thing to disrupt the market. As a leadership trainer and coach I am fortunate to be trained by Steve Jobs’ ex-coach (John Mattone) who said Steve was about innovation but it was more about the people you have and how you’re led. In my own exploration I have learnt that creativity needs ongoing development [and selling] or as James Dyson, founder of Dyson, provides his succinct formula: Creativity + Iterative Development = Innovation (Business Insider, 2012).

So what are the stages of a creative insight?

Despite being published more than nine decades ago, Wallas’ (1926) foundational ‘4 stages to creative insight’ are still anchored in creativity research today: being immersed in the problem (gathering information); forgetting about it or incubation (i.e. when creative insights can come during mental relaxation, for example, as we are walking the dog); allowing our mind to wander (illumination stage) and executing our insight (verification). The latter, putting it into motion, according to Goleman, does not always occur.

But many of us can multi task so isn’t this wandering still performing?

Well no, according to Goleman. Multi-tasking, he declares, is a myth as our concentration is diminished if we sidetrack from our initial task (i.e. answer an email or phone then try to go back to the task). We are, therefore, not at our peak performance.

So, what is the peak performance and how do we get ourselves and our teams there?

I know from my leadership experience that when my brain activity is challenged my performance is high. My optimal performance occurs when I am “in the zone” or as Csikszentmihalyi coined, “in the flow”. Csikszentmihalyi defines being in the ‘flow’ as an optimal state of consciousness (see his seminal book, “Finding Flow”). It is that pivotal ‘Ah Ha’ moment, that moment where you are so engaged nothing around you matters, you are not distracted and time flies. It’s that pivotal moment where we feel our best and perform our best says Csikszentmihalyi. We are in peak performance.

As leaders our challenge is to get our teams to peak performance by getting them into this flow/zone. How? That’s a good question. An example is ensuring each team has a challenging assignment -frequently. Intelligent leaders guide their team’s attention (attention and being aware of what’s happening is one of the dimensions of EQ, self-awareness).

Why is the flow state important?

Research done by Harvard Professor, Teresa Amabile, shows that people who have experienced this state of mind report higher levels of productivity, creativity and happiness for up to three days after experiencing flow (Kennedy, 2017 Huff Post). Now that’s worth achieving! So, mental wandering or meandering can be a perfect tool for high performing teams and for exploring our unknown future. It allows our brain to forge connections between pieces of information we don’t link up when we are too focused (The New Scientist, 2017).

But as Csikszentmihalyi revealed “creative achievements depend on single-minded immersion”, meaning that the motives of why we do things count. He shares an example from his research of painters who are focused on the joy of painting tend to become more serious painters as opposed to artists that are focused on making money or what others think (critics) tend to drift from art after graduating.

A wandering mind is not the enemy of lack of concentration if you know how to guide it.

In a few weeks I will publish a guide on how to take control of a wandering mind. If you would like me to reserve you a copy of the research, Send me an e-mail saying “Reserve a copy for me, please!”

Go forward,

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