The Power of Mind-Wandering

The seemingly trivial activity of mind-wandering is now believed to play a central role in the brain’s “deep learning,” the mind’s sifting through past experiences, imagining future prospects and assessing them with emotional judgments: that flash of shame or pride or anxiety that each scenario elicits.

A growing number of scholars, drawn from a wide swath of disciplines — neuroscience, philosophy, computer science — now argue that this aptitude for cognitive time travel, revealed by the discovery of the default network, may be the defining property of human intelligence. “What best distinguishes our species,” Martin Seligman wrote in a Times Op-Ed with John Tierney, “is an ability that scientists are just beginning to appreciate: We contemplate the future.” He went on: “A more apt name for our species would be Homo prospectus, because we thrive by considering our prospects. The power of prospection is what makes us wise.”

 Today, it seems, mind-wandering is under attack from all sides. It’s a common complaint that our compulsive use of smartphones is destroying our ability to focus. But seen through the lens of Homo prospectus, ubiquitous computing poses a different kind of threat: Having a network-connected supercomputer in your pocket at all times gives you too much to focus on. It cuts into your mind-wandering time. The downtime between cognitively active tasks that once led to REST states can now be filled with Instagram, or Nasdaq updates, or podcasts. We have Twitter timelines instead of time travel.

At the same time, a society-wide vogue for “mindfulness” encourages us to be in the moment, to think of nothing at all instead of letting our thoughts wander. Search YouTube, and there are hundreds of meditation videos teaching you how to stop your mind from doing what it does naturally. The Homo prospectus theory suggests that, if anything, we need to carve out time in our schedule — and perhaps even in our schools — to let minds drift.

Steven Johnson writing in the New York Times

The Importance of Leisure

German philosopher Josef Pieper wrote, “We mistake leisure for idleness, and work for creativity." 

In a world of “total work,” there is no space for contemplation or rest. There is no need for people to be in “harmony with themselves” as long as they are employed. To “know thyself” is a secondary concern, and any sort of break from work is merely in the service of doing more work. 

As Pieper put it:

The simple ”break” from work — the kind that lasts an hour, or the kind that lasts a week or longer — is part and parcel of daily working life. It is something that has been built into the whole working process, a part of the schedule. The ”break” is there for the sake of work. It is supposed to provide ”new strength” for ”new work,” as the word ”refreshment” indicates: one is refreshed for work through being refreshed from work. 

Paul Millerd writing in Quartz

a Call for Help

Asking for help is smart. It's also the answer to fatigue and the "I'm indispensable" image. But something keeps us from this wise course of action, and that something is pride. Plain, stubborn unwillingness to admit need. The result, painful though it is to admit, is a lifestyle of impatience. We become easily irritated- often angry. We work long hours. Take less time off. Forget how to laugh. Cancel vacations. And all the while the specter of discouragement looms across our horizon like a dark storm front,- threatening to choke out any remaining sunshine.

Say, my friend, it's time to declare it. You are not the Messiah of the twentieth century! There is no way you can keep pushing your life at that pace and expect to stay effective. Analyze yourself any way you please, you are H-U-M-A-M... nothing more. So? So slow down. So give yourself a break. So stop trying to cover all the bases and sell popcorn in the stands at the same time. So relax for a change!

Charles Swindoll, Encourage Me

Trusting Ourselves to Live Without Self-Made Barriers

My weekend of "sleeping" on the decision of whether to apply for a potentially exciting job evolved into a familiar frenzy of circular, useless thought and internal list-making, as well as reading everything I could get my hands on, including a book one of my journalism professors gave me, titled "Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes," which I have yet to finish for good reason.

I initially plunged into the book, knowing my super-speedy reading skills would yield another "achievement" of having yet another book to bring up at parties or feel particularly good about myself when I can tell others, "Yeah, I've read that," as if some book fairy was waiting on the last page to plant a huge gold star on my forehead for being on the fast track to personal enlightenment. There I go again. Fast as I can. Trying to get to the finish line before anyone knows I'm in the race. But something slowed me down. Something made me stop trying to rush through a book intended to help me enjoy, or at least cope, with life's gentle lulls.

Amid my mental commotion, I managed to pick up another book by Geneen Roth, "Women Food and God." That one was impossible NOT to read in about three hours - again, for good reason. It was a book I needed to read ten years ago. And it led to a few realizations:

The constant drive I feel to keep climbing whatever ladder happens to be in front of me at the moment has a lot to do with the fact that weight loss has somehow programmed to me think that PROGRESS is actually REPAIR for a person I've always been convinced is broken. I'm not skinny enough, so I "fix" myself with a rigid diet. I'm not smart enough, so I digest information at every possible opportunity to seem less inadequate. I haven't accomplished enough, so I keep seeking professional outlets for which to prove to a judgmental world that I'm aware of my shortcomings and want to overcome them.

This self-inflicted rat race has never been about personal growth; it was always about internal repair. And these moments of murky transition scream to my compulsions, saying, "Wait, there is no way that YOU could be good enough to slow down. You've never been good enough. What makes you think you are now? Keep pushing. Keep working. Keep killing yourself to prove you have value. It's the only way."

Any sort of educational, professional or personal structure I've ever maintained in my life was an excuse to keep a cage around Broken Me. I adhere to strict, torturous diets and workout plans because if I don't, Broken Me (who obviously can't be trusted) will screw up and gain weight. I maintain impossibly difficult schedules because Broken Me would waste her life away if left unattended. I've spent my life devaluing everything about myself in order to justify having my own predetermined life track. I've also convinced myself that if I don't spend a life obsessively submerged in all that I love, simply loving it has no value in itself, hence the all-too-predictable desire to jump at the opportunity to apply for the job.

And the truth is, I would love that job. I would learn from it. But, would I grow? My news judgement and management skills would likely improve. I would be able to gain a new type of experience. But, would taking on a position like that enhance my education or serve as yet another comfortable crutch for a girl who convinced herself long ago that she couldn't stand on her own two feet?

Alex McDaniel

Go Take a Hike

A century ago, economists believed that you could predict how poor someone was by how much he or she worked. The whole point of earning wealth, they argued, was that it afforded you less toil and more downtime. But somewhere in the annals of America’s workaholic culture, putting in inhuman hours at your job became a status symbol, especially for the elite.

Today’s high-flying executives are some of the worst offenders. Apple CEO Tim Cook gets up at 3:45 a.m. each day to fire off work emails, and is often the first one in the office and the last one to leave. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has bragged about pulling all-nighters at her desk.

Billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban once didn’t take a vacation for seven years. These executives continue to put in grueling 100-hour workweeks long after they’ve made more money than they could hope to spend in a lifetime. Why? Because in our work-obsessed society, busyness has become something that we aspire to. It signals that we are in demand, and that our time has value.

You could argue these executives are doing what they love, and that meaningful work provides a real sense of fulfillment. But all that industriousness probably isn’t making them more creative or productive. Some of history’s most accomplished figures across science, math, and literature—people like Charles Darwin, Henri Poincaré, and Charles Dickens—insisted on working just four or five hours a day. The rest of their mornings and afternoons were filled with long walks and other leisurely pursuits that recharged their mental batteries and gave rise to creative ideas.

Studies of exceptional performers and athletes reveal similar work/rest patterns, with just a few hours a day of serious, focused effort. No one expects corporate America to suddenly start breaking for afternoon naps. But the next time your colleague sends an urgent 10 p.m. email, you might tell him, quite literally, to go take a hike.

Carolyn O’Hara, The Week magazine

10,000 hours of deliberate practice is not enough

In a study of violin students at a conservatory in Berlin in the 1980s.. there was something.. that almost everyone has subsequently overlooked. “Deliberate practice,” they observed, “is an effortful activity that can be sustained only for a limited time each day.” Practice too little and you never become world-class. Practice too much, though, and you increase the odds of being struck down by injury, draining yourself mentally, or burning out. To succeed, students must “avoid exhaustion” and “limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.”

Everybody speed-reads through the discussion of sleep and leisure and argues about the 10,000 hours (necessary to become world-class in anything).

This illustrates a blind spot that scientists, scholars, and almost all of us share: a tendency to focus on focused work, to assume that the road to greater creativity is paved by life hacks, propped up by eccentric habits, or smoothed by Adderall or LSD. Those who research world-class performance focus only on what students do in the gym or track or practice room. Everybody focuses on the most obvious, measurable forms of work and tries to make those more effective and more productive. They don’t ask whether there are other ways to improve performance, and improve your life.

This is how we’ve come to believe that world-class performance comes after 10,000 hours of practice. But that’s wrong. It comes after 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, 12,500 hours of deliberate rest, and 30,000 hours of sleep.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang writing in Nautilus

allowing for Transitions

It's easy to believe you are in a different place in life than you really are--because it's hard to know when you have passed through a transition until you are completely through it and are able to glance back and say, "Look at that! Look what I just went through!"

The in-between time is what William Bridges calls the "neutral zone."  During this period, you will be in the process of "destroying what used to be."  You will be "dismantling" while undertaking “some new building."

Bridges is most helpful in pointing out that life's changes are driven by the desire to reach a goal, while life's transitions:

"Start with letting go of what no longer fits or is adequate to the life stage you are in... although it might be true that you emerge from a time of transition with the clear sense that it is time for you to end a relationship or leave a job, that simply represents the change that your transition has prepared you to make. The transition itself begins with letting go of something that you have believed or assumed, some way you've always been or seen yourself, some outlook on the world or attitude toward others."

It's an internal move of greater significance than any external move.

If you are having trouble getting motivated to finish a project, consider the possibility that filling up the pages to finish that report (or whatever completes your project) will mean having to face an even clearer (and more gut-wrenching) void. So you avoid it.  You don't want to see the emptiness for what it is. So you wait until you can skip to a new distraction. If you delay finishing that project, you can put off looking at some hard things about yourself.

While in the midst of a project with deadlines, you feel like you have a clear identity because, your purpose is defined by the project's needs. But if you could remove the projects out of your life, what justification would you have for thinking of yourself as someone of value?

Likewise, a serious relationship with someone provides a sense of purpose, defining you and giving you a sense of worth. If you are forced to sit down and write out the definition of who you are without the benefit of a title (manager, employee, project manager) or relationship (wife, girlfriend, mother) you crutches, your “go to” terms to define yourself are gone.

A suggestion: Spend time doing things that allow you to center yourself. Give yourself down time to listen. Whatever brings you to stillness will put you in a good position to allow the transition to take hold and internalize it, so you don’t miss the opportunity to make a paradigm shift toward greater emotional and spiritual health. Allow yourself to just "be" within the knowledge of who God is and reconnect with the world around you (its sounds, smells, tastes, touches and sights).

Stephen Goforth