Ah, the delicious experience of not thinking. Athletes in their “zone,” ecstatic worshippers “in the Spirit,” movie-goers and novel-readers engrossed in the story, gardeners pruning their trees,lovers talking into the night. The bliss of no time, no stress,no ... thinking?
But there are endeavors of thinking itself in which one can be equally “present”: playing chess, brainstorming a project, negotiating a deal, writing an essay. So the productive state in which time disappears is not really about not thinking — it’s more like not thinking about thinking. But how do you achieve that state?
You must deal with what throws you out of that state. The mind seems designed to help close the gap between what you’ve committed to and your current reality. If you want to be somewhere you’re not, some way that you’re not, your psyche will experience a cognitive dissonance and pressure until it fulfills that outcome or at least gets things on track toward it. If everything is totally on “cruise control,”thinking is probably not required.
The most productive approach is to think as little as you can get by with, but as much as you need to.
Different horizons have different frequencies at which they must be viewed. How do you get today off your mind? Several times during the day, you probably need to reassess all the actions required to get things done you’re committed to do. But at least weekly, a thorough review of all your projects and attendant actions is usually necessary. Every month or two, you probably need to think through the checklist of all the areas of responsibility of your life and work, to ensure that you have all the right projects on your plate. Yearly, it’s a good idea to look out over the next 12 to 18 months and formulate where you want to be by then. And every few years, you (and any partners in your life) probably need to rethink the vision about your life and lifestyle.
And the Grand Think is figuring out your purpose here on the planet. If you really come up with that one, once should be enough, though you will probably want to check in with some regularity to ensure that you remember.
You’ll really get into productive mode when you have established regular cognitive reviews at all these levels, with the habit and commitments in place to revisit them at the appropriate interval. For instance, when you know you are consistently doing some version of the “weekly review”catching up, reviewing and updating all the open loops of your life and work you afford yourself the luxury of not having to be thinking about all that stuff, in that way, for another week.You get to be somewhat dumb and happy, in productive “doing” mode, the rest of the week.Why? You’ve already though sufficiently, generating what you need in terms of clarified perspective and inventory of your commitments. And you know you’re going to think again. If you don’t do the weekly review, knowing you should be thinking about something at that level will incessantly bother you.
If you’re having trouble getting into your “zone,” getting to “mind like water,” ask yourself at what level you need to do some focused thinking, and get it done. Finish the exercise. Then come on in — the water’s fine. “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle: they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and they must only be made at decisive moments.”
—Alfred North Whitehead
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