In my Self-Coach Toolboxes, I recommend the user to be mindful while studying, and that’s not something I am going to retreat.
The importance of mindfulness and concentration while learning something – or learning about oneself – is determinant: when we master self-awareness about the purpose of our thoughts and actions, we come to accept our strengths and weaknesses less emotionally.
However, we cannot pretend to use mindfulness constantly. The process requires an effort to achieve awareness of the so-called “here and now”. After all, is not that a form of multitasking? We are living a moment while thinking of it, and the way we act and react into it. It requires a great amount of energy, not to mention will-power, and it is not worthy all the times.
How we fall trap of mindfulness
I recently read two interesting articles on the topic. The first one is exactly about the overuse of mindfulness and misconceptions. Everything is requiring “mindfulness” nowadays, yet many of us fail to understand that it isn’t just a state of mind, but a practice.
The second one distinguishes the awareness on the present moment from savouring an experience. Indeed, savouring has more to do with what is called “optimal experience”; which is an event that goes with other perks, such as having altered sense of time, and being fully absorbed in an activity. Much of our empirical background does not include mindful moments.
Think of when you try to learn a language. There is a time when you apply all your grey matter on learning new words, rules, slang. This is a moment where mindfulness proves useful: we do analyze the words, we aim to memorize them and connect them one another. Then, there is a time when you need all those words to come up in a conversation. Everybody knows that trying to reflect on the perfect translation or to hook up to our memory (especially if not organized), is going to block us from what we wanted to do: speaking. This is the context where we need to be mindless.
Alternating mindfulness and mindlessness
By any means, I am not against mindfulness and I am not advocating to abandon its approach. Rather, to rethink it based on what you need.
Context is the key!
I use here the term mindlessness in opposition to mindfulness: to describe a time where we are “not thinking about our experience”. While not thinking about the here and now, we ARE that. We do not want our flow to be interrupted and we want to savour our learning points. After all, missing enjoyment in learning hinders the learning process itself.
I have realized how my best performance always come with a clear state of mind. Ironically, I achieve that with mindfulness exercises: breathing, waking up the body, or even visiting my memory palaces. For instance, during my morning jogs I better control my breathing while running over my mind palace for the Slovak 100 most important verbs, than when I focus on the breathing itself. This way I do not suffer breathlessness, and I even keep constant speed.
In a somewhat twisted fashion, mindfully studying helps me being mindless when and where I need. Achieving security on language allows me to be more confident (and natural) in a conversation, despite the mistakes, because words come in alone without the need to “mindfully” look for them.
So you see, you can learn how to be mindfully mindless and switch the right state of mind on or off, according to the type of learning moment you are experiencing. For instance:
- You need to concentrate to develop mental imagery or use other mnemonics to learn new information
- Rehearsing information while chilling or doing something else that does not require a great neural effort is sparing you time and maximizing your learning experience
- Making some knowledge “automatic” (such in the example of a conversation) is a sign of nascent mastery; it aids us moving forward and embrace more complex challenges, since our brain is able to “mindlessly” deal with what now is basic for us.
My advice to the practitioner
Now it is time for you to test this theory! When doing something you are very good at, think how much you focus on what you are doing against the focus on the quality of your experience. The way you give yourself immediate feedback and course-correct when necessary.
Also, download a copy of the Self-Coach Toolbox: use it to outline your learning goal and retrospect efficiently. That’s a wise way to begin!