Guest Blog: "Doing Nothing" To Accomplish More

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

By Amy Kay Watson

Business and leadership magazines have been abuzz about mindfulness and its power for improving executive functioning. Most of us have a good sense about what it means to be mindful, with body and mind present in the moment, but have you taken the plunge? A few simple steps can help mindfulness become an important part of the day.

You have probably imagined mindfulness exercises like meditation, accompanied by an unfamiliar stack of cushions and some arrangement of bells or gongs or new age music set to birds and a rushing brook in the distance.

While it's true that daily practices might include meditation, they can also take the form of walking, hiking or painting. A mindfulness practice can actually be any otherwise "mindless" activity in which you focus your attention on something that doesn't require it. Effective leadership and lowered anxiety are just two possible results.

Midway through the 6th season of 30 Rock, Jack Donaghy introduces Liz to "The Shower Principle," which he explains by saying "The shower principle is a term scientists use to describe moments of inspiration that occur when the brain is distracted from the problem at hand. For example, when you're showering."

Leadership coach David Rock wrote about how a mindfulness practice creates these moments in his book Your Brain at Work. People who are more creative, innovative and able to solve problems "can observe their own thinking, and thus can change how they think. These people have better cognitive control and thus can access a quieter mind on demand." (p. 81).

Rock emphasizes that when someone has moments of insight and inspiration, they aren't necessarily distracted from the problem, but their awareness of it is "light," allowing other thoughts to be present in the brain as well. It is in this state that the individual may play with the idea to consider out-of-the-box possibilities, including those that have no chance of working. This is the phase you may be in while in conversation with someone else about a related issue, or taking a shower.

To begin to develop cognitive control, you will need to first make space in your day for such a practice. Consider beginning your practice by spending ten minutes every day "doing nothing."

To be effective during this time, do not use it to catch up, squeeze in a phone call or even intentionally ruminate over a knotty problem. You can do it outside--but set a timer. No phone calls. No email. If you notice yourself getting obsessed with that knotty problem, just take a breath and set it aside. Notice the leaves changing color. Listen to the furnace kick on and off.

Take notice of the impact you experience from ten daily minutes of "doing nothing."

Just as with weight training, do not stay satisfied with this first level of practice. After a month, shift into an actual mindfulness practice. This involves choosing an object of focus, such as your own breathing or the sounds in your environment. Place your focus there, and as you realize you've become distracted by thoughts (it will happen), come back to that object of focus.

Executives tend to be go-getters, incredibly driven, and described by others as "the one you go to when you just need to get it done, because she will always get it done, no matter what." But when you do nothing, even for just ten minutes, you get ideas. You will see things more clearly. Solutions appear.

With time, cognitive control-the ability to quiet the mind and find solutions when you need to-will develop. Six months later, you may find that the most important effectiveness strategy you've adopted is ten minutes a day doing nothing. You may find that this is when all the best stuff happens.

What could you set aside for ten minutes a day to gain perspective, solutions and clarity?