Contrary to the popular adage “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results,” it doesn’t mean you’ve lost your marbles. In fact, you’re probably doing exactly what the human brain evolved to do over the past two million years.
It takes a lot of energy to fuel the human brain. Over time, it developed strategies for operating more efficiently, and one of those strategies involves traveling well-worn pathways to conserve energy use. When we encounter information or situations that appear similar to what we already know, the brain says, “I recognize this” and pulls up the appropriate response from the past, saving time and energy, or so it seems.
This strategy worked well when the world moved slower and we didn’t have to consider constant change with our customers, products and employees with almost every decision. These days, the world moves at a pace we aren’t set up well to work in, which can cause serious dysfunctions at work and in our personal lives.
For example, running into meetings late, unprepared, with no agenda, and talking about the same things over and over. Running red lights and texting while driving. Our world moves so fast that speed has unseated survival as one of our deepest instincts. So we end up making decisions and doing things we know logically will not produce optimal results.
The constant information overload that has become part of our world puts enormous stress on our brains. Between tweets, texts, voice mails, popup ads and the endless deluge of social media messages, we can’t possibly process all the information we take in every day. Under stress, the brain usually defaults to what it evolved to do – go with the old tried-and-true pathways.
Give Your Brain a Break
The brain requires time and space to operate most effectively. In fact, research <https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/q-a-with-alex-soojung-kim-pang> shows that we perform at our best with a well-rested brain. Some of the most influential people in history – such as Charles Darwin and the renowned mathematician Henri Poincaré – intuitively knew this and rarely devoted more than four hours a day to their primary work. They spent the rest of the day in restful and restorative activities, such as hiking, visiting friends, taking a nap, or just sitting around and thinking.
When given the opportunity, the brain loves to ponder, wander and explore. Yet, pausing to rest and restore the brain feels like falling behind. So we continue running as fast as we can in order to keep up. The problem with constantly running is it causes us to react rather than truly think. We shortcut actual thinking and end up relying on old pathways to get us to new places.
In this day and age, working four hours and taking the rest of the day to let the brain wander probably won’t cut it. What we can do is build small increments of brain wandering into our daily routines, and supplement them from time to time with an in-depth wandering session.
Start by taking short mental breaks every day. Put your phone on hold, pause for a moment and just let your mind relax. Lean back in your chair, look out the window, take a few deep breaths, and let the mind roam. As little as three to five minutes at a time will give your brain a nice break and allow you to resume work with renewed energy and creativity.
For maximum brain wandering, take a full day off from the business and all its distractions at least once a month. No cell phones, no texting, no checking voice mail. Instead, spend the day in restful and restorative activities while allowing your brain to go in any direction it wants.
Get in the Habit of Wandering
Although it only takes moments to disconnect from the sensory overload and let the mind wander, our brain tells us we don’t have time for such nonsense. The trick is to build those moments into our daily routines, so that pausing to mentally decompress becomes a welcome habit rather than a bothersome chore. You’ll be amazed at how even a few moments a day can refresh and recharge your brain.
There’s another more important reason to make brain wandering a part of our daily routine. Somewhere along the line we bought into the notion that our brains tend to shut down when we rest. In fact, they remain highly active when engaged in restorative rest.
When we go for a stroll in the woods or a walk on the beach, the subconscious mind continues to work on problems. Moreover, it does it in a relaxed, restful state, which allows it to more easily explore different ideas and solutions. When a promising idea presents itself, the brain uploads it to the conscious level, so we can work on it with our full awareness.
How many times has a good idea or solution come to you while relaxing in a hot shower or just lying in the grass gazing up at the clouds? That’s your brain doing its best work in a state of restorative rest. But it can’t get to that state unless you consciously take it there.
We need to be very intentional at brain wandering because everything in our world today screams at us to just run. So we have to work hard to create new habits that make space for what is most important versus what appears to be urgent.
Your brain loves it when you visit. It yearns to wander, explore, play and run free. You have to give it permission and then set aside the time to do it. If you’re tired of traveling the same well-worn pathways in your company, make it a habit to let your mind wander. Who knows what path you’ll end up on and where it will take you?