How to think more about your thinking

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We’re always thinking, even when we don’t think we are.

Our brains are constantly working to solve problems, to remedy issues or mental conflicts, consolidating information, and processing new knowledge or stimulus. Our brains function in ways we can’t consciously comprehend, always doing something behind the scenes. By becoming more in-tune with our personal thinking patterns we can develop healthier habits of creative and productive thinking.

If you tend to think of unique ideas when you’re surrounded in a noisy room by strangers, it’s powerful to know why that is so you can recreate the stimulus more of the time. Or if you find yourself struggling to feel motivated whenever you’re at home, figuring out why that is can help you change the environment or create different types of motivators there, and elsewhere.

Building self-awareness isn’t always as easy as it may seem however. There isn’t a silver bullet to self-awareness, but there are ample things you can do on a daily basis to build awareness of your own thinking. In her book Insight, Tasha Eurich dives into the research around why self-awareness is so foundational to performance, decision making, relationships and creativity. She also uncovers a number of exercises you can do to improve how you think about your own thinking.

Meditation, occasional free-writing or journaling, reading, daily check-ins, trying new things, and having regular conversations with a good friend, are all great ways to become more aware of your thinking patterns.

With mindfulness meditation the goal is to sit silently with yourself for anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour or more. No music, no direction, just sitting with yourself and learning to observe where your thoughts go.

It’s amazing when people first start meditating like this. I’m often told by those just starting to meditate: “My thoughts jump all over the place! I can’t control what I’m thinking.” And that’s the whole point of this type of meditation practice, you’re not supposed to try and control your thoughts, you simply need to be aware of where they come from, how long your mind tends to sit on any particular subject, notice if there’s anything surprising or recurring in your thoughts that might need more attention when you’re done with the meditation practice.

The longer you meditate over time, the more in-tune you can become with your inner thinking patterns. (I recently built a simple meditation timer and tracker to help build a habit of the practice if you’re looking for an elegant app to help you get started.)

Free-writing or journaling also helps you become more aware of your thinking patterns, but in a way you can come back to later on and be more reflective of. The trick, as Eurich explains in Insight, is to not spend too much time being reflective or focusing on negatives in your life. A good way to keep journaling beneficial is to use prompts to help focus your thinking as you write.

You can find a ton of free resources online for daily writing or journaling prompts. If you have an iPhone or iPad I built a free app for creative writing called Prompts.

Eurich gives a few other exercises you can use to become more self-aware, including what’s known as the Miracle Question: imagine while sleeping tonight a miracle occurs which influences many parts of your life. When you wake up, think about how you would feel and what would have changed.

Or consider one of the best ways to gain awareness: ask someone you’re close to for feedback about you. What traits first come to mind when someone thinks about you? What do they view as your sentiment towards things, what are your regular habits or behaviors? When do you appear to be more creative or productive than not?

We may not be able to fully control everything that goes on in our brains, but through building self-awareness and habits of thinking we can help encourage more creative output.

Creative ideas in the here and now

We often think of creativity as being about what comes next, what’s just around the corner.

In actuality, creativity isn’t about the future at all. It’s about what’s around us here and now, then being able to take that awareness and turn it into something actionable.

You can imagine what the world may look like 10 years from now, but that won’t do you any good if what you imagine requires leaps and bounds between technology, resources, and execution.

The alternative is to look around you right now to see what might be changed in order to actually create a future world.

This awareness of the present exposes us to what’s known as the adjacent possible: all the different ways the present can realistically change here and now.

It’s the adjacent possible which allows creative ideas to come to fruition, by uncovering what small, incremental, steps can be realistically taken. A carriage with a combustable or even steam-powered engine attached couldn’t have come before the horse-drawn carraige, it was simply unfathomable. By creating the carriage for horses to pull and the engine, it became feasible that attaching the enginge to the carraige might be a good idea.

What creative ideas are hiding just barely out of sight, waiting for you to merely notice them?

To discover the adjacent possible in any given moment there are two ways: by paying attention, or by getting lucky.

You can spend your entire life waiting to get lucky and never have a good idea. Hope for luck, but put in some of the work to pay better attention to the world around you too.

One way to do that? Mindfulness meditation, something that has scientifically been shown to improve creative output.

It’s not the act of meditation itself that is causing people to be more creative, it’s the point that meditation forces us to sit still for long enough to pay attention to what’s going on around us in the here and now.

The mental states that make meditation help or hinder creative thinking

I’ve always said that when it comes to improving your creativity, it’s not enough to simply read advice columns or books on the subject, but rather: you must find what works for you, personally.

One such creative method I’ve found to be personally powerful for me is meditation, or meditative-like walks. But, as research has shown, mindful meditation might actually produce the oppositeeffect in a small percentage of individuals who try it.

In a 2014 study, researchers Yi-Yuan Tang, Rongxiang Tang, and Michael Posner, conducted research to determine whether or not particular mental states or circumstances make meditation a benefit versus hinderance to creative ability.

First the researchers note that overall creative performance is typically reported as positive in meditation studies. Meditation equals mindfulness and rumination, so this should come as no surprise.

But what the research also shows is that those of us who are naturally introverted and positive tend to reap the most benefits from meditative states. The researchers write:

“People with more positive emotion had more flexible and original responses… Moreover, creative people in general are more autonomous, introverted, mood stable, and energized. Similarly, both mental state and temperament are related to individual differences in meditation. For example, anxiety and neuroticism are negatively related to the ability to achieve an appropriate meditative state.”

If you’re inclined to ruminate often and are open to experiences more than others, you’re likely to get a bigger creative benefit out of meditation (or setting aside time to ruminate) than those who tend to be more pessimistic and close-minded.

Research indicates that 57% of what makes something like mindful meditation beneficial to our ability to think creatively – to have new and valuable ideas and to solve complex problems – is accounted for in our mental state and personal disposition.

So while meditation might be beneficial for some, it really comes down to what mood we’re in before we sit down to concentrate.

When it comes to being more creative, you must take the time to find what works for you. Maybe that’s meditation, maybe it’s not.

What’s your experience been with common creative advice like this? Have you found that some popular advice doesn’t work for you despite how well it’s received?

Photo by Moyan Brenn.

Improve your cognitive thinking with meditation

Want to improve your cognitive thinking? Do you have 20 minutes a day to dedicate to improving it? You’ll be interested to know that new research has shown how easy, mindful meditation for a few minutes every day can improve cognitive abilities.

Fadel Zeidan, a researcher at Wake Forest University School of Medicine and former doctoral student at the University of North Carolina, along with Susan K. Johnson, Zhanna David, Paula Goolkasian, and Bruce J. Diamond, have conducted a study that tested students on their cognitive abilities before and after a week of meditation.

For this study, 63 student volunteers ‒ 49 of which completed the study ‒ were randomly split into two groups. The first group received basic meditation training using Buddhist techniques, while the second group listened to a vocal reading of “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkein.

Before the study began the students were tested on several levels, including mood and cognitive abilities. At the end of the study researchers discovered that both the meditation group and the reading group had increased moods, however the meditation group performed as much as ten times better on cognitive thinking and attention tests.

From the featured article in ScienceDaily: “Findings like these suggest that meditation’s benefits may not require extensive training to be realized, and that meditation’s first benefits may be associated with increasing the ability to sustain attention,” Zeidan said.

The meditation and cognitive thinking study appears in the April 2nd issue of Consciousness and Cognition journal.

If you are looking for a way to improve your cognitive ability ‒ the way your mind thinks and sorts through knowledge ‒ try this meditation technique for at least 20 minutes a day. After a week, if you don’t feel like you are more creative than before, at least you’ll have a better mood about it. Give it a try.