Empowerment Hack – Zone out to solve big problems

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I was home with my daughter this past Friday, she was home sick from school. It was one of those parenting moments when you realize you’ve been had immediately following the point of no-return. In this case, right after leaving a message on the schools absentee voicemail system. It’s there, in the barely noticeable smirk you detect beneath the “sad, sick” face. And I was right, she TOTALLY could have gone to school.

I’d also hoped to get some substantial writing done on Monday, so this put a little wrinkle in that plan. You know the feeling, that point where you need to decide if you’re going to let it build up in frustration all day with some half-assed attempt at getting something done, or you let it go and decide that there are other plans for the day and you’ll make the best of it.

I’ll admit, I was split down the middle at first because I’d put a fair amount of pressure on myself to get some progress made – but the truth was that I wasn’t able to focus. I was already having trouble getting clarity on what to do next and my writing felt forced.

So, as she watched TV and I sat down with my laptop, it became very clear to me that I wasn’t going to accomplish much. I kept zoning out or compulsively checking email and Facebook. I gave up and accepted my fate for the day and embraced it. We went shopping and had lunch together, played hookie and it’s was a great day with my daughter.

When I sat down on Monday morning, I mysteriously had a much clearer path in front of me. If I think about it, despite not being a morning person, I’ve always felt the most productive on Monday mornings.

And it’s not a slight improvement from where I left off, It’s a huge one. Real clarity on my next steps and solutions to decisions that seemed overwhelming on Friday.

Why?

The hack:

For optimal innovation and brain function, carve out time for “connect the dots” moments – AKA, zone out.

We often feel that those times when we’re not thinking at all – about anything, are wasted moments of productivity during the day. In fact, they are probably the MOST productive moments in your day.

If you are an information junkie and fashion yourself an innovative mind, you may find that you crave constant brain candy and inspiration. Do you also find that you easily get distracted and zone out? This might actually be for a really important reason.

Why it works:

Research is showing us that in order to organize the valuable insights we take in, our brains have adapted a technique to allow it to sort and organize information, even while in the middle of a task. So even when we feel overloaded and leave a problem or task, our brains actually keep working on the problem!

In fact, it seems like our brain kind of kicks us out of conscious thought for brief periods of time when it’s overloaded or feels it has enough information – it needs us to stop taking in more information, so it can work on what it has.

Mind wandering allows us to work through some really critical and innovative thinking. Our brains are designed for problem solving and to reach goals. Some goals are immediate while others are further off and more intricate. Somehow our brains have evolved a way to switch between processing immediate goals and tasks and contemplating long-term goals. This switching from focused, conscious behavior to zoning out might just be our brain’s way of also tackling longer-term goals, especially if a thought or cue triggers our brain into tackling a longer term goal.

 How to maximize the hack:

We all know certain things trigger zoning out, like driving a familiar route in the car, or when your neighbor is talking to you about the latest updates on her cat’s health, but it’s very likely we aren’t really giving our brain’s adequate opportunity to maximize innovative problem solving on our behalf.

  1. (probably the most important one) STOP checking email and social media when we lose focus on a task. Instead, just sit there and let your mind wander or zone out. Or, get up and walk around for a few minutes and then sit back down. Picking up our phones, or checking email simply continues to bombard our brains with stimuli, not allowing it to organize and work on our block.
  2. Walk, run, or ride. While exercise is amazing for us in a number of ways, I might argue that its biggest benefit is to our brain. Music is fine, but skip audio books and pod casts (sad face for Melissa).
  3. Give yourself time away. I know this is easier said than done. It doesn’t feel productive to take planned time away, but it’s critical.

So remind yourself, that your brain is still working hard on the problem, even (especially) while you play!

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