Are you struggling with a big decision and just don't know what to do? Trying hard to figure out the path that will take you to the best future can be downright paralyzing. Perhaps you find yourself imagining the worst-case scenario, pitted against the success that the "right" decision can bring.
Here's the truth: Solutions rarely emerge from an anxious mind. Fear-driven determinations hardly ever turn out well.
Yes, zoning out can actually help you be more decisive.
Milton Erickson, the famous psychiatrist who is well-known for his research in hypnosis, often engaged his students in a mind experiment. He asked them to tell him how many ways they could travel from Phoenix (where he lived) to Tucson. The students told him the regular ways: use a car, bus, plane, train, or walk. Then Erickson would say, "That is very good. But if you relax your mind, your unconscious will give you more ideas." So, the students would relax and then notice other ideas pop up. Perhaps they could take a hot air balloon, fly around the world backward, tunnel under the ground, or ride a camel to their destination. Erickson continued to encourage other ideas through accessing the other side of the mind that we call the unconscious. Sure enough, his students demonstrated that they had access to unlimited ideas. Even though their ideas seemed whimsical and impractical, by tapping into another part of the mind, which Erickson called the unconscious, they were priming themselves to think outside the box and find novel solutions.
Mind wandering allows the subconscious to "speak up."
Fast-forward to the 21st century when neuroscience research discovered that shutting down conscious thought drives the process of developing creative ideas. It turns out that when you stop evaluating a problem and do something else like take a walk in the park, play a game, listen to music, take a nap, or enjoy a warm shower and focus attention away from trying come up with a solution, a new idea shows up. This is called the process of incubation and can be induced in a short time through "mind-wandering," in which you let your mind move into a dreamlike state for a few minutes.
When we get into a worry-mind, old solutions that don't work become stuck in the mind in a loop of repetitive concerns that can spiral into running your worst Stephen King horror movies of the mind. Attempting to generate new ideas is impossible until you change your mental state to one that is calmer. Then you tend to forget those stuck ideas and make room for creative solutions that you may never have thought of before. In our new book, The Worry-Free Mind: Train Your Brain, Calm the Stress Spin Cycle, and Discover a Happier, More Productive You, we explain a few techniques if you have trouble letting go.
How we process our knowledge can be just as important as the knowledge itself.
To be clear, mind wandering is not a replacement for learning about a topic and analyzing it. But when all your preparation leads to dead-end solutions, you need to learn to reorganize the hard-earned knowledge. Taking the mind away from your goal can create the break-through you're looking for.
In a world of fast-paced change, those people who can develop creative ideas and use a process to solve problems become successful entrepreneurs, parents, teachers, and leaders in all professions and life pursuits. Whether you are struggling with a management issue, trying to decide whether to move or not, or where to spend your birthday, you can feel stuck. When you feel blocked, take a break and know that the other side of your mind is working on the problem. When you come back to the issue, watch the answers pop up. It's a kind of Harry Potter magic the mind uses and a wonderful extraordinary ability you have all of the time.
Editor's note: This article was co-written by Dr. Carol Kershaw and Dr. Bill Wade.