The Power of Mindlessness

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Mindfulness has received a lot of good press. Yet too much of a good thing is quite often a bad thing. There are times and places where being dumb as a brick is the smartest thing you can do.

Rumination as Enemy

I’ve come to see the conscious mind as (among many things) a problem-solving organ. Our minds scan for trouble, either in the environment, or failing that, in our memories and imaginations. Once locked on to a problem, our mind ranges over the problem, sometimes with frightening intensity, seeking alternatives, obstacles, and hopefully solutions. We all know the “a-ha!” feeling when a solution appears in our mind and a problem is vanquished. I have trouble imagining a world in which human beings could dominate the planet as we do without the ability to relentlessly problem-solve.

On the other hand, when no solution can be found, our problem-solving ally, our conscious mind, can become an enemy. Anxiety disorders are the number one form of mental illness worldwide, and I believe in most cases rumination — problem-solving run amok — plays a major role in the creation and perpetuation of anxiety.

We spend a lot of time trying to get people to think more and pay more attention — through education, through mass media and Internet-based campaigns, and we even try to boost attention chemically in our students using prescription drugs.

If we want to be resilient to symptoms of anxiety and other mental disorders, we need to know when not to think or attend as much, or to shift attention and thought away from the latest and loudest of our problems, if only temporarily, and if only for our rest and recovery. Almost nobody teaches healthy ways to do this. Perhaps this explains the prevalence of television, video games, alcohol and street drugs as popular outlets for “unplugging” the mind.

Decision Stops Deliberation

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One of the best ways to short-circuit rumination is with decision. Given an ambiguous problem, make a decision one way or the other. If it’s really so hard to decide between alternatives, perhaps that means that the alternatives are all of nearly equal quality. Flip a coin if nothing else will work. Rumination is a habit, and I acknowledge that leaping from a speeding train of thought can be daunting if you don’t have much practice. But I can’t recall a single example where someone was trapped in rumination, let go of it, and suffered because of their lack of continued calculation.

Ending deliberation opens up the possibility of action. Another great benefit of deciding early is that once you’re in motion with a solution (even a bad one), you start learning more about the problem and may come up with more insights than had you stayed at the metaphorical starting line, thinking about whether it would be better to start with your left foot or your right. Mid-course corrections work wonderfully for space probes and major corporations, and they work equally well for individuals.

Some deliberations are not of the “what to do?” variety but more of the “what is true?” category. “Does she love me?” and “will I get laid off?” are two examples of the “what is true?” deliberation. I encourage my clients to try to phrase questions of truth in terms of questions of action. “Does she love me?” could really mean “Should I marry her?” “Will I get laid off?” could mean “should I job-hunt?” Notice that questions of truth definitely make a difference, we can still act on the underlying “what to do” questions without definitive answers. No one can know with absolute certainty if someone else loves them, but they get married all the same. In the same way, there’s very little downside to having a new job offer, whether or not you get cut from your current employer.

Mindless Action Over Mindful Action

Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm tells a story about doing heavy manual labor in the tropics; he hauled wheelbarrows of dirt over and over again to help construct a new monastery. After days and days of this work, he began to lose his composure. Then one of his fellow monks explained to him “Pushing the wheelbarrow is easy. Thinking about pushing the wheelbarrow is hard.” Given that inspiration, Ajahn Brahm said he was able to stop thinking about the work and just did the work. From that point forward, as illogical as it seems, the wheelbarrow felt physically lighter and the hours seemed to fly by. So even a monk can benefit from tempering his mindfulness practice.

Brahm’s story brings up some difficult questions on what is “mindful” and what is “mindless.” One definition of mindfulness is about directing and focusing the mind on a specific object, activity, or concept. Having heard Brahm tell the story myself, I’m not entirely clear whether Brahm was actually being mindful by attending to the moment-to-moment experience of manual labor, or doing something else. Having done some manual labor myself, I’m skeptical that focused awareness on a dull, hot, and painful process would cause time to pass quickly as Brahm described. I suspect that he might be doing something else: realizing that there’s nothing particularly worth his attention in this situation and letting his attention relax and diffuse, distancing his mind from the inevitable discomfort of the situation. Perhaps this diffusion is simply another style of mindfulness as opposed to “mindlessness.” Rather than belabor the point, I would return to Brahm’s thesis that the discomfort of a task has as much to do with how we hold our minds as how we move our bodies.

Policy Over Pondering

You may have been bedeviled by store policies, company policies or school policies, yet policies can be a wonderful tool for cutting out overthinking. A policy is just a special kind of decision that applies to a variety of situations so you need not think about them again. If you put your socks in a particular drawer or your utensils in a specific place, then you already have policies. (And if you don’t, I expect getting dressed or making dinner can be a real trial.) How many aspects of your life can be simplified by choosing and sticking to a simple policy?

Delegate the Worrying

Another way to make space in your head is to give away your problems to others. Lots of people ruminate about their health without making an appointment to see their doctor and talk through the problem. If you have a problem and you are not an expert in that area, sometimes it really pays to bring in a pro, whether that be a lawyer, accountant or personal organizer, there are legions of expert problem-solvers that can lend you their skill and confidence.

Penny Wise, Ponder Foolish

Much of life is about trade-offs. Almost everyone values money, and most value their time, but many fail to consider the cognitive and emotional cost of decisions. Some problems are small enough that the mental effort of solving them is not worth the benefit. Author and political pundit Harry Browne proposed the “$20 rule.” Under this rule, any problem that costs him less than $20 is immediately dismissed from his mind. Overcharged five dollars at the restaurant? Let them have it. Not sure whether premium dish soap might be better than generic? If the difference is less than $20, buy the good stuff. Depending on where you are on the economic spectrum, you might set your threshold higher or lower than Harry Browne’s $20, yet the pleasure of realizing that the solution to some problems is not to solve them at all can be most gratifying.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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