Why do leaders falter and fail? Is it due to a lack of knowledge, misguided strategy, or poorly-applied techniques? Rarely. At the core of leadership dysfunction is a behaviour that is hardly ever seen, let alone taught in leadership books and trainings. It’s something everyone faces and most of us indulge in daily, even hourly, without ever recognizing it. The root of leadership dysfunction? Absentmindedness. Most of us spend a substantial amount of time lost in thoughts about the future and the past – in other words, lost in absentminded thinking. Much of that time lost in thought is focused on negative thoughts:
“I should have said this…”
“Why did I forget that?”
“I hope my investments are going to be okay.”
The science is clear that this habit is damaging for our health and wellbeing. As one study concluded, “[A] human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”*
So how can we manage the absentmindedness that is robbing our happiness, damaging our health, and crippling our leadership? The first step toward managing anything is to be aware of what it is we’re trying to manage. Try tidying up a room in the dark: it’s obvious we cannot manage what we cannot see clearly and objectively. In the case of mindful leadership, we’re trying to manage our state: our body, mind and heart, and by extension our words, actions, behaviours and habits. Using the previous analogy, what keeps the room “dark” is absentmindedness.
Absentmindedness can be defined as being inattentive or distracted, or zoning out. It undermines our awareness and keeps us “in the dark.” Put simply, we cannot be self-aware or truly aware of others when we are distracted by our thinking. For example, when we are mentally preparing our answer while someone is speaking to us, or rehashing meetings or interactions in our mind we are giving up our present-ness and in doing so sacrificing our health and happiness.
Over the years of teaching mindfulness to thousands of leaders I have invited them to put what they have learned to the test in their own personal context. Invariably they have found that awareness and absentmindedness are mutually exclusive; their greatest shock is realising how much of their lives is spent in an absentminded state.
Absentmindedness and Your Health
Neuropsychologist and bestselling author Dr. Rick Hanson once told me that being consistently lost in thought is one of the most damaging things we can do for both our mental and emotional wellbeing and our brain health. Most of our thinking typically defaults to negative patterns — in part based on our collective biological history.
Why are our default thought patterns negative? As Rick explained, the brain’s negativity bias evolved because our ancestors lived when lethal dangers were real and ever present. In a world where the “carrots” were sex, shelter and food and the “sticks” were snakes, lions and injuries (which generally meant death), it paid to focus on the sticks. If you missed a carrot today, you’d have another chance tomorrow. But if you missed a stick, well, no more carrots…ever.
In the modern world, life-threatening situations are relatively unusual. But given our natural tendency to focus on the negative, combined with a habit of inattention and being lost in thought, we spend much of our time in a mentally constructed fight, flight or freeze mode.
This unnecessary and inappropriate activation response leads to our accumulating wear and tear of the body and mind, called allostatic load. This allostatic load is a major cause of physical and mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and stress-related illnesses.
In the context of leadership, the negativity bias and allostatic load rob us of self-awareness and energy. It over-focuses us on threats and makes it harder to learn from positive experiences.
It’s like wanting our brain to perform like a Ferrari while driving it through the mud every day.
Absentmindedness is a thoroughly ingrained habit for most of us. We eat, drink, sit through meetings, and much more, pretending to listen, but all-the-while fixated on our own thoughts about the past and future, unaware of what is happening around us. We can arrive at our destination in the car and not recall the journey at all. The critical point is that absentmindedness pulls us from reality, preventing us from seeing things clearly, both within ourselves and others.
Three Ways We Disconnect
A deeper way to look at this subject is to examine the three underlying ways we lose connection with reality:
- Resistance/Avoidance: This is an “anything but this experience” attitude. It can manifest as fear, anxiety, worry, procrastination, avoidance, frustration, irritation, complaining, arguing, judging, even hostility or hatred. Things are not good enough or safe enough for us. Our thoughts can be mildly resistant (“I wish it wasn’t so dull today!”) to intensely resistant (“I can’t stand anyone who disagrees with me!”). There is a definite sense of argument, and mild to extreme unease with our life as it is (or was). That argument with our life adds unnecessary stress to our system.
- Am I easily upset, frustrated, or derailed?
- Do I procrastinate, worry, or fear things that I shouldn’t?
- Am I critical, hostile or angry towards others?
- Am I overly focused on what happened in the past, or about something working out in the future?
- Clinging/Idealisation: Children know this one very well: “Are we there yet?” As adults we play the “I’ll be happy when…” or the “When…then…” game. We are unconsciously restless and dissatisfied with what is in front of us. But instead of focusing on the negative, we yearn for the “next ideal thing”, that next promotion, car or holiday house. “When I get [x], then I’ll be happy!” This sets up an endless quest for the ideal experience. We want the room neither too hot nor too cold, and if it’s not just right (which it very rarely is) we suffer and crave a more ideal experience. Another aspect of clinging is greed. We cling to prized possessions, people, ideas, prejudices, jobs, status. In that clinging there is a fear of loss, and therefore a consistent stress in our system.
- Do I frequently focus on the next goal or achievement without genuinely enjoying the present?
- Do I feel like happiness is just beyond my reach, right now?
- Do I value or cling to relationships, possessions, and/or achievements more than I should?
- Do I worry about losing those things and obsess over maintaining them?
- Delusion/Numbing: We can call this zoning out or becoming numb, and it is a deadening of ourselves. It does not have the aliveness or strong “itch” of the other two, but it is still very much a form of absentmindedness. This could be as simple as overeating, drinking too much alcohol, excessive T.V. watching or overusing our phones. But on a more subtle level, it is a kind of habituation, a sense of neutral passivity. Things aren’t fresh or alive or exciting, they are just kind of okay. Daydreaming is a good example of zoning out, as is driving your car to work on autopilot and not remembering the journey.
- Do I turn to habits or addictions to zone-out?
- Am I constantly checking social media sites, or turning to technology during brief moments of down-time?
- Do I “lose time” – not remembering what I did, or what was said, or what happened while I drove somewhere?
- Do I feel like life is just okay?
Sadly, I have worked with too many good people who have become numb, burned out, alienated from their families and their team members, as a result of a steady diet of clinging, avoidance and numbing. In their quest for success they have indulged in endless worry, obsessive planning, values compromises, aggression and more. Eventually they come to recognise that these habits cannot produce the inner wellbeing they long for, and their lives are living evidence of this.
There is good reason why the English language associates wisdom and connection with the word “sense.” Think of the words sensational, sensitive, sensible, common sense, makes sense. Conversely, our language associates an absentminded life with disconnection from the senses — think senseless, insensitive and nonsense. I have yet to meet someone who wants to live a senseless life, yet this is exactly what an absentminded life is.
Next time you hit a roadblock, consider whether or not you’re engaging in absentmindedness. If you are, remember that being present is the antidote. It is possible to gain both outer success and inner wellbeing – and mindful leadership paves the way towards achieving both.
Written by Michael Bunting.
Michael Bunting is the bestselling author of The Mindful Leader and A Practical Guide to Meditation, and co-author of Extraordinary Leadership in Australia and New Zealand. He runs leadership consultancy WorkSmart Australia, a certified B-Corp.
*Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). ‘A wandering mind is an unhappy mind’, Science, 12 November, 330(6006), 932. doi: 10.1126/science.1192439.