Managing Excerptations: The Wandering Mind

productivity Cognition Daydreaming

I started my blog to kick my non-writing habit. I've now got enough material to start blocking out a book (hooray!). So while I'm doing that, I thought I'd start a small series looking at some of the books that have influenced me.

"Managing expectations" is one of my least favourite managerialisms. I cringe whenever I hear it. Expecting is about hope, which is the only thing that keeps many professionals going. We take what we can from life and do our best with it.

So this series is about some of the excerpts that caught my eye over the last six months. They're part of what gives me hope about the profession of management.

Part of the myth of the hero-leader (and its current incarnation, the 'entrepreneur') is her ability to focus with great single minded purpose. Success in the business world is predicated on 'getting things done'. The cult of productivity offers the promise of being able to DO SO MUCH. We go to work and do battle with our undisciplined selves via our email, calendars and meetings. It's all about delivery.

Deliver, deliver, deliver.

Which is more a trait we expect from a machine than a person. How is it that we see progress as becoming more mechanistic? Could it be something to do with our default expectations? Yes. And where did these expectations come from? Well, put it this way, they didn't exist before the Industrial Revolution.

This post isn't about how our default management values are out of step with the world we currently inhabit. But it is about puncturing this idea that we can organize ourselves into being more productive humans. It's about the trouble of 'staying on point' and why doing so isn't that smart.

Daniel Levitin's 2014 book 'The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload' went straight to the top of my reading list when it came out. One of the topics he wrote about was the discovery of our 'mind-wandering' mode,

"This distinctive and special brain state is marked by the flow of connections among disparate ideas and thoughts, and a relative lack of barriers between senses and concepts. It can also lead to great creativity and solutions to problems that seemed unsolvable. Its discovery - a special brain network that supports a more fluid and nonlinear mode of thinking - was one of the biggest neuroscientific discoveries of the last 20 years. This network exerts a pull on consciousness; it eagerly shifts the brain into mind-wandering when you're not engaged on a task, and it hijacks your consciousness if the task you're doing gets boring."

I discovered that this mind-wandering mode has a natural cycle of about 20 minutes which, if you didn't know already, is also the length of time of a single Pomodoro period. Funny that. One of the early changes I made to my work habits was to never work longer than 40 minutes: two Pomodoro periods.And I've learned to respect the point in the middle when my mind starts to wander.

"Daydreaming and mind wandering are a natural state of the brain. This accounts for why we feel so refreshed after it, and why vacations and naps can be so restorative. The tendency for this system to take over is so powerful that it's discoverer Marcus Raichle named it the default mode. This mode is a resting state, when your brain is not engaged in a purposeful task and your mind wanders fluidly from topic to topic. It's not just that you can't hold on to any one thought from the rolling stream , it's that no single thought is demanding a response."

That the mind-wandering mode is our resting state is important. Those who meditate or nap regularly will recognise this state. It's a state of potential, of waiting. But it's not a state of non-existence. Our brains are working, it's just that our 'central executive' (which we tend to associate our identity with) isn't active. I've come to the point now that I see this resting state as the more 'productive' of the two.

"The discovery of the mind-wandering mode also explains why paying attention to something takes effort. The phrase paying attention is well worn figurative language, and there is some useful meaning in the cliche. Attention has a cost. It is a this-or-that zero-sum game. We pay attention to one thing, either through conscious decision or because our attentional filter deemed it important enough to push it to the forefront of our attentional focus. When we pay attention to one thing, we are necessarily taking attention away from something else."

What this means is that we should be careful with what we pay attention to. Or put another way, what we choose to engage our central executive with. When we turn our attention 'on', we need to be sure it is put to effective use. Because attention is a finite resource, has a short cycle time and crowds out a lot of relevant information.

Management in the modern era is equal parts creative and algorithmic. And the reason we are investing in analytics suites is because computers are better at algorithms. So the task of the cognitively aware management professional is to cultivate this resting state, to quiet the busy mind and take care what we choose to think about.

Image via Gratisography