Ubiquitous technology is making unplugging far more difficult–email and cell phones follow us wherever we go. To make things worse, it is often difficult to switch off this cerebral hyperactivity, which no longer stays at the office. Instead, it shadows us in the evenings, on weekends, on holidays, and perhaps at night, disrupting our sleep. The benefits of a good vacation wear off after a few weeks. How do you reclaim mental space in your daily life?
Let your brain take a break! Breaks allow you to check in with yourself and refuel. Checking in helps you align with yourself as you step back, get some distance, remind yourself of your “why,” and examine whether your thoughts, your words, and your actions are congruent.
To make room for your intuition and stay connected with your aligned self, you need to reclaim some mental space. Here’s how:
Find Ways To Refuel
We all recharge differently, besides the basic needs of proper food, sleep, and exercise. What gives you energy? One of my clients learned to take breathers between meetings, allowing herself to sit down for a few minutes and have a coffee on her way back to the office. Or perhaps listening to music for a few minutes works for you. Or stepping out of the office to walk and clear your head. Or talking to a friend.
An effective way to refuel and reclaim mental space is to suspend the past and the future and stand in the present moment. This ability to bring yourself back to the present is known as mindfulness. Mindfulness and other forms of meditation have been scientifically shown to be among the most effective techniques to reclaim that headspace. This is why many tech firms in Silicon Valley often start meetings with a few minutes of silence. It gives everyone in the room a chance to clear their heads and focus. But like anything else, the ability to stand in the present at will is a skill that requires practice. Google started nudging its staff to attend mindful meditation training as early as 2007, and the practice has now spread far beyond Silicon Valley to traditional Fortune 500 companies such as Goldman Sachs and General Mills.
Think of it as cerebral downtime, like a mini-holiday for the brain. Your energy settles into calm. This downtime pays off: a refreshed brain has been linked to higher attention, motivation, memory, and productivity—all of which feed performance. Cerebral downtime also facilitates perspective and creativity: your unplugged brain is better able to make lateral connections that then bubble up to the surface of your consciousness, with inspiration seemingly coming out of the blue. Put simply, meditation helps rebalance attention away from your over-taxed frontal cortex and its analytical, linear, rational thinking towards your more intuitive self. Some studies have suggested that cerebral downtime is essential to staying connected with ourselves and with others, affirming our own identities and helping to understand human behavior. In other words, it is essential to cultivate alignment with oneself and promote emotional intelligence.
Find How You Like to Meditate
Meditation has been shown to result in profound changes in brain structure over time, strengthening areas associated with emotional control, memory, introspection, attention, and abstract thought. When your brain takes a break, it does not stop working. Instead, it allows many mental processes to take place—just as essential physiological processes take place while you sleep. It makes space for the more intuitive part of your mind. Some of you might be groaning right now. “Meditation? Really?” But before you visualize yourself wearing a robe and burning incense, please know that mindfulness does not require shaving your head and sitting in the lotus position for hours. It simply means to be present, fully aware of what you are doing—whether you are cooking, listening to music, walking, or staring at the ceiling. All you need to do is focus on something other than your thoughts. It can be your breath, or the sights or sounds around you. Find your own way of doing this.
One of my clients cultivated mindfulness by going fishing, focusing on the sound of the wind rushing in the trees, the gentle ripple of the water, and his fishing line flying through the air. Another chose to listen to music, focusing on each instrument and the variations in the vocalist’s voice. Once Bill, the hyperactive CEO, got over his fear of being alone with his thoughts, he worked on carving out short breaks during the day to reconnect with himself. For a few minutes, he would stop looking at his phone or email and do nothing. Before launching into a new idea, he asked himself whether it was aligned with his priorities. By slowing down his hectic mental activity, he gained much needed perspective—and effectiveness.
Steve Jobs was famous for doing much of his creative thinking while taking walks. Inventor Thomas Edison’s intuitive insights came to him when he was hovering between sleep and wakefulness. When confronted with a particularly sticky problem, he would sit in his chair with two steel balls in his hands, drifting towards sleep with a pad and pencil next to him. If he drifted too far, the noise of the balls falling out of his hands would wake him up. Albert Einstein and Salvador Dali also regularly wandered between sleep and full consciousness, a space where the linear and analytical part of their minds relaxed their grip, allowing intuition to flourish.
Start Practicing Mindfulness to Reclaim Some Mind Space Right Now
Place your hands on your lap, close your eyes, and focus on your environment for a few minutes. Really focus. Can you feel your feet planted on the ground? The back of your chair pressing against you? The palms of your hands on your legs? What sounds do you hear? What do you smell? Focus on your breathing. Every time you notice you have been distracted by thoughts, gently bring your mind back to the sounds and smells around you. Practice taking a few moments to anchor yourself in the present, paying attention to what’s around you, and you’ll open the door to your intuition. If you haven’t used it in a while, it may feel skittish and unpredictable, like a wild horse ready to bolt. It may take a little time before you’re able to clear your mind and find a silent inner space. But if you keep practicing, it will help you stay aligned with yourself. With that mental space nurtured, you’ll be better able to stay focused and keep external influence in perspective— further cultivating your inner alignment.
Hortense le Gentil is a global executive leadership coach, President and Founder of Jay Consulting and author of the forthcoming book, Aligned: Connecting Your True Self with the Leader You’re Meant to Be.