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Wellbeing from Mindlessness (in defence of categories and habits)

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Edward de Bono has authored a small library of books demonstrating that our brain functions by spotting patterns. (He sets out the theoretical base in Mechanism of Mind.) One implication of this is that we tend to spot the same patterns – so we need, on occasion, to deliberately look for what doesn’t fit our patterns and pursue ‘out of the box’ thinking. Relying on our existing categories can lead to missing opportunities, not seeing ways to do things differently and is a recipe for routine rather than excitement. I regard Edward de Bono as truly brilliant – and that he presents his ideas in accessible and useable ways is magnificent.

In the self-development world it is usually mindfulness that is prized. The mistakes we make are often because we are unaware of what is going on (how our situation has changed, our own motivations or how our behaviour is perceived by others, or how we create our own problems). Slipping into a habit when our situation changes can be fatal. For instance, when you go to another country where they drive on the opposite side of the road.

All of which is true.

And yet . . . There are several qualifications I think.

Firstly, mindfulness takes energy: for some things it would be simply too draining – such as choosing all the muscles involved in getting up or taking a step.

This means that, in one sense, learning ends with mindlessness. When we have learnt something then we ‘forget it’, it has become part of us. I have now, most of the time, ‘forgotten’ typing – I think of the words I want (actually the phrases), and they come out my fingers onto the keyboard. I no longer pay attention to my typing. Likewise a musician no longer needs to search for the tune in a piece of music (if there is one) – it is ‘simply there’ it is perceived without (conscious) effort. My typing and the musician’s awareness of tunes have become ‘mindless’.

Secondly, our categories and habits help us focus on what is new. We know that we can spot a tune, so it is intriguing if we come across some music (noise?) without one. I know how to type, but it is a challenge when I come across a new word; typing the usual is easy and this allows me to spot the new word to focus on.

If I am an expert in a particular field then there will be some standard problems that I recognise. If I’m a doctor I will recognise ‘without thinking about it’ particular types of headaches. (This can be important – the doctor my need to respond as speedily as possible with some types of headaches.) In this situation responding mindlessly within the existing categories can save lives. The doctor being able to spot unusual headaches, the ones that don’t fit the usual categories, can also be important. Knowing the usual ones ‘without thinking about it’ frees up the attention needed for spotting the unusual.

Thirdly, our habits can save us time and effort. Thinking about what order to dress in the morning could take all day – there are thousands of different possibilities that we would need to think about. Likewise, I wouldn’t want to negotiate meal times every day with everyone involved.

Our categories and habits I think make good servants and bad masters. But how can we tell which they are being.

If we are feeling stale and in a rut, or,
If we come up against the same problem time and time again,

It may be time to examine our categories and/or habits.

How can we examine our categories and habits? Here are some ideas that I have:
1. Awareness
Throughout a day note all the ways your habits save you time.
Spend a few minutes listing the kinds of categories you use to evaluate yourself, other people, relationships, occupation and hobbies.

2. Questioning

In Imagination

Imagine some different ways of doing your day – having different habits. Be as outrageous as you can. (Who says you can’t shower in your clothes – it may save on laundry.)
Think of someone who you like and respect but is quite different to you. Imagine what categories they use (you don’t need to know what they really are – this is just to help you free up your own categories).

Checking With Others (optional)

If you like you can check with others how they do their habits and categories. You can ask others how they organise their day and how they think about people, occupations and so on.

3. Trying out something different.
After finding out different ways of doing and thinking you may want to experiment with changing your categories and habits. Hopefully the questioning has had a freeing-up and refreshing effect on you. You may well have some ideas about what you would like to do differently.

Let me know about your experience with your categories and habits in the comments. Especially if you try, or have tried in the past, changing a habit or a category that you think with, I’d love to hear your experience of this.

If you like this post you might also like:
How to Update Your Past
The Value of the Past
The Past Can Make You Ill: three tips to help

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I'm Evan Hadkins. To find out how to live a more satisfying life you can download my manifesto on living authentically. It is a book of exercises to guide you to finding, nourishing and living from the core of who you are.

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{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Maudrey 2009/01/05, 9:45 pm

    Very enlightening post. I especially like the part about “forgetting” something that we have already learned. And how our habits save us time. If I had to think about which processes I follow before taking a bath, brushing my teeth and dressing up each morning, it will probably take me the whole morning. I would like to see how my life would be if I changed some of my habits, though I can honestly say that I haven’t found myself in a rut yet. Nor have I encountered any recurring problems because of my habits. I do have a routine, which I follow throughout most of my day, especially during work days. It has been working for me so far so I don’t think I will change that anytime soon. But maybe I can start with small things. Like how I brush my teeth. My sister, who’s also my dentist, has been teaching me a different way of brushing ever since I got braces. Two years later, I’m still brushing the way I always have. Maybe it’s time to change that habit.

  • Evan 2009/01/05, 9:55 pm

    Hi Maudrey,

    Thanks for your comment.

    Re tooth brushing. Being silly with my young niece and nephew I once suggested that they try brushing each other’s teeth, at the same time. Much to my surprise they tried it and enjoyed it. Just a thought.

    More seriously, if the habits work that’s great!

  • Evan 2009/01/09, 7:24 am

    Hi Tom,

    I’m sure you’re right about the initial realisation.

    Thanks for your comment.

  • Tom Volkar / Delightful Work 2009/01/09, 6:55 am

    Just this morning I had a conversation with a colleague on how differently we process information. In initially voicing our challenge in following the other we came up with useful adaptations for future interactions. I think the initial realization is key when it comes to changing habits as you suggest.

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