What if mindfulness got in the way of creativity?

Much has been researched and published about the positive impact of mindfulness (or mental focusing). Better decision making, lower levels of stress and greater well being are just three benefits purportedly delivered by practising mindfulness on a regular basis. However, is it always beneficial to introduce mindfulness in to the workplace and what if mindfulness led to lower levels of creativity or poor decision making? Are there circumstances in which it is better not to practice mindfulness at all?

In The Power of Negative Emotion, Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener, challenge some of the myths around positive psychology and mindfulness at all costs. In this fascinating read, Kashdan and Biswas-Diener, talk about the benefits of ‘mindlessness’ which they define as anything from absentmindedness through to full immersion in the subconscious. In other words, it is the opposite of mindfulness.

Shortcuts help us function

Sometimes it is not appropriate or efficient to practice mindfulness in everyday interactions. To save computing space in our brain, people rely on heuristic thinking – the use of automatic cognitive shortcuts. These enable us to make assumptions and reserve mental energy. For instance, when you show up to your local post office, you assume that the person behind the counter speaks English, knows the price of a stamp and can recommend the most appropriate postal service for you. You don’t have to spend time analysing each part of the interaction and can efficiently undertake the transaction. This automatic thinking helps conserve mental resources.

Distractions gives us mental space to process important decisions

We tend to overthink important decisions and being mindful may exaggerate this. Developing cost-benefit analyses, consulting experts and creating plans can mean there is just too much data to digest and come to a decision. What is needed is some unrelated distraction which enables your brain to work its magic ‘behind the scenes’. Apparently 26 of 44 US Presidents used doodling as an aide memoire. Doing something distracting helps replenish mental energy and enables us to refocus, often leading to better decision making. In other words, mindless distraction has its place in decision making.

Being very controlled and polite delivers confusing messages

Being very restrained and controlled (and mindful) in our personal interactions may result in confused messaging. In one study, older adults who were typically less inhibited, were more likely to deliver straight advice to others which they found more helpful. In another study, when researchers exhausted individuals through a series of physical exercises, individuals were less inhibited and more willing to candidly discuss sensitive issues such as diversity resulting in more positive working relationships across cultural groups. There may be a case that we are being too polite and too constrained in the workplace.

Few people deny the benefits to well being that mindfulness practice can deliver. However what all this means is that there is also a time and place for spontaneity, mental meanderings and less inhibition. Doodling is okay – it doesn’t necessarily mean you are not paying attention or listening. And sometimes being more straightforward and less ‘controlled’ results in better feedback and direction – a case for ‘tough love’.

However, perhaps a combination of mindfulness and mindlessness is what’s required.

If you want to talk about the appropriate use of mindfulness in workplace interactions, contact me now.