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How Not Thinking Quite So Much Can Make Us Smarter

Spring is here. By now, you’re a few months into your New Year’s resolutions. Or, you’ve already abandoned these and are looking for something new. In either case, here’s a practice to add to your health and wellness commitments for the new year: stop thinking. You’ll be smarter and more content.

This isn’t about dumbing things down. I like (okay, love) to think. I love to think a lot. I think for a living and charge by the hour for it. A lot, I think.

But like any guilty pleasure, there’s a downside to thinking a lot. And it has such a downside that a few years ago, I decided to do less of it. The same way you’d eat less Haagen-Dazs or cut your cable TV news consumption down to an hour a day.

I began a conscious practice of not doing a certain kind of thinking so much.

Does the following ring true for you?

My mind keeps going over the same thoughts again and again. I’m circling the drain. And it’s not like this helps me to figure things out. If anything, the more I think, the less sure I am.

From her tone, my client’s frustration was clear as she shared this anxious thought with me during a recent coaching session.

Every day, we all cycle through many tens of thousands of thoughts. In an often cited and analyzed study, the National Science Foundation tells us that 95% of our thoughts are repetitive; most aren’t very helpful.

And what are those repetitive thoughts? We are re-living the past and projecting our anxieties into the future, and doing this over and over and over and over and over and over again.

Another of my clients shared that every time her boss comes to her with a concern she immediately becomes defensive, which makes him defensive. Things escalate.

She has not been able to examine her thoughts in the moment and to realize that the verbal abuse she’d suffered as a child working in her father’s small business had conditioned her response; she could never do anything right in her father’s eyes. Decades later, her thinking was still influenced by her past, and she found herself avoiding situations where she might be criticized, limiting her personal and professional growth.

You know the punchline: As a result of looking backwards and forwards, we miss what’s happening in the present and are unable to see how the current context should be what shapes our behaviors.

That’s when the problems start. That’s when thinking too much gets in the way of almost everything else — like being authentically there for the people in our lives, finding beauty in the world around us, and, most problematically, making peace with our restless selves.

The More I think, the Less I know

For most of my life and career, I thought thinking was an absolute good. It helped me avoid risks, do well in school, and get and keep good jobs. Thinking and communicating my thoughts also meant people would think I was smart.

But I didn’t stop to consider how I was thinking. Most of us don’t.

You can get away with not thinking about thinking for a long, long time. Until you can’t. Until life intrudes. And it always does to all of us. You get a poor review at work, or family relations break down, or life plans don’t materialize the way you expected. Fill in the blank.

Something happens in your life that causes you to examine your thinking because…it’s no longer working. It might even be a cause of the challenges you’re facing.

In these situations, your intelligence, at least, the thinking kind, probably won’t be enough. The good news is that these intrusions are openings — opportunities to bring a different kind of intelligence into your life. This is the intelligence that comes from awareness.

You do less thinking to make room for greater intelligence.

Awareness as Intelligence

Awareness intelligence means an unfiltered, non-judgmental understanding of what’s happening around you. Traditional intelligence relies on filtering what we perceive though our many layers of learning — the accumulated mental frameworks we form from books, teachers, our families and friends — and our experiences. Once filtered, thoughts are judged as good or bad, helpful or unhelpful — usually prompting us to take some action, often reflexively.

Awareness intelligence is less heavy, less demanding. It implies acceptance of what your senses tell you WITHOUT reference to lived past or imagined future.

Here’s an example:

I know she’s angry with me. I accept that this anger is not going away in this moment and that I cannot change it. I choose not to allow my mind to link this moment of anger to some painful past experience and to bring that pain into the present so that I can (over) react to it. I also avoid projecting her anger in this moment and my response to it into any judgments about our future together.

Awareness intelligence helps you become smarter because it allows you to redirect your mental capacities away from negative, pointless, and often harmful thoughts to more constructive, creative, and purposeful ones.

In my next blog, we’ll talk about the three forms of awareness intelligence that you can practice and maintain in your daily life.

So, think about what you’ve just read. But not too much.

For a few decades, I’ve been a business and non-profit leader, adviser, investor, trustee, and observer. I write about mindfulness in business and life.

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