But it occurred to me I also did lots of other stuff on the computer, and if I stopped doing those, my back might not hurt. I tried it and it worked.
I came up with this insight, and most of the good ones I’ve ever come up with, by thinking. Before you dismiss that as too obvious to even mention, please hear me out.
If you have a problem or difficulty, or you feel confused, or you just feel like you’ve been working-working-working without a break, take some time and do nothing.
Let yourself think about whatever comes into your mind. Don’t just give yourself ten minutes for this. Go a half hour at least, and preferably longer, because it takes the mind a little while to settle down. Go for a leisurely walk through a quiet area, or sit still in a quiet place and just sit there.
I call it this “T5” (for take the time to think). The following suggestions will make your T5 productive:
1. Take enough time. Imagine you want to tell me something and you’re not sure how to say it, and I repeatedly interrupt you to say, “Come on, come on, I don’t have all day!” Imagine what that would be like and you'll realize it’s hard to be creative or even intelligible under circumstances like that. The mind functions better when it’s not under pressure. This is just as true with thinking as it is with talking. So give yourself time to T5. I usually set a timer and make myself sit there until the timer goes off. That way I don’t hurry myself through it. I know I have plenty of time, and I don’t try to hurry up and think so I can get up sooner.
2. Have paper and pen handy. You will get ideas. You’ll think of things you want to take care of. Write these down so you don’t have to use part of your mind trying to remember something. You’ll often spend almost all of your thinking time writing, and that’s perfectly okay. Writing is an excellent way to think. That’s why people benefit from “journaling.” Writing down your thoughts and feelings is a form of T5 and it is very therapeutic. But in this case, you’re not trying to write a lot (but you’re not preventing yourself from writing a lot). The purpose of having paper and pen handy is to keep your mind unencumbered by things you are trying to remember. So if you think, “Oh, I need to pay rent tomorrow,” write it down so you free up your mind. You don’t want to use up part of your attention trying to remember that. You’ll also probably get insights you’ll want to remember later. Write those down too.
3. T5 in an undistracting environment. Don’t try to think when you can hear or watch a television or music. If you go for a walk, walk in the least distracting place you can, preferably through the woods or across an empty desert or through a quiet neighborhood where you’re not going run into someone you know.
4. Keep it uninterrupted. You know how hard it would be to carry on a conversation with someone bursting through the door every five minutes to interrupt? You would keep losing your train of thought. Same with T5. As the minutes tick by, your mind settles down and begins to think. Every time you’re interrupted, your mind has to settle down afterward again, sometimes never again finding that train of thought.
The best way is to sit down in a quiet place alone. Set your timer for one hour, and just sit there. I’ve done this hundreds of times and it calms me every time. Stress melts away. It clarifies what I’m up to. I solve problems that have been bothering me in the back of my mind.
I’m often surprised that my mind seems to have a backlog of things to think about. Because I go from one activity to another and most of them use my mind, I don't have any time to think about things, so the “unthought” things are somehow stashed away for thinking about later. I don’t purposely do this. It just seems to happen by itself.
As soon as I sit down, my mind goes to work, almost like the maintenance program on my computer. My computer is set so if it is inactive for 30 minutes, the computer automatically starts an antivirus scan. The computer has been waiting for an idle period to clean things up.
The mind seems to be like that too. As soon as your mind starts to settle down, as soon as it realizes you're not involved in anything, it starts to clear things up. Little questions that have been nagging you come to the foreground and get worked out. It sounds so boring to just sit still for an hour, but it is very calming to sort things out, figure things out, think things out. You’ll feel wonderfully clearheaded when you’re done.
You might be thinking only the contemplative type of person would find this enjoyable. Maybe you think only introspective people can do it. But I'm not an introspective person at all. I’m normally energetic and dislike sitting still. I have to make myself sit still, but when I do, and when my mind starts to get past the boredom, good things start happening. Try it a few times before you make up your mind about it.
BESIEGING A PROBLEM
One way to T5 is just to let your mind think, without trying to think about anything in particular. You will find your mind thinking about things you need to think about, and that works great.
But another good way is to deliberately concentrate on a specific problem. Often a problem will yield to sustained and concentrated thinking. More often than not.
Think of this kind of T5 as a “Mongol siege.” When Genghis Khan (no relation) wanted to attack and defeat a walled city, he would choose a particular section of the city wall and begin the siege. One third of his army would attack that spot for eight hours, to be immediately replaced by another third of the army attacking that same spot for another eight hours, etc. The siege went on, twenty-four hours a day until the city fell.
And it always fell.
“The sheer relentlessness of the Mongol siege,” wrote Brian Tracy, “was so devastating that no city ever withstood it.”
If you have a problem or challenge, and you thought about it and concentrated on it, and you didn’t give up, can you see you would probably find a solution every time?
And in case you want to accuse me of overstating my case, let me be clear I’m not saying every person can solve every problem that ever existed. I’m not talking about cold fusion here or ending world hunger. I’m talking about specific problems you have — problems that are stumping you or demoralizing you — problems you ran into on the way to your goal.
If you concentrate your mind on your problem or challenge, and don’t either give up in despair or jump wildly onto the first idea that pops into your head, but instead give it some serious, sustained thought, either on a walk or sitting quietly for an hour or two at a time, can you see you would probably overcome every obstacle — either solving the problem outright, or finding a way to skirt around it?
Think of this kind of T5 as a Mongol siege. Be relentless. Keep thinking about it, even after you have already come up with some good ideas. See if you can think up an even better idea.
Here’s how to generate ideas to solve a problem or accomplish a purpose: Make a list on paper. Set a goal ahead of time for how many ideas you’ll come up with, and don’t stop until you hit that target. This will prevent you from stopping with the first good idea. Always try to think of something better.
Try alternatives in your head to see how they’d work. A hard-thinking session that didn’t produce a single good idea was still worthwhile. It planted the question deep in your mind. Coming up with ideas primarily consists of asking a question over and over no matter how many good answers you’ve already gotten.
This is a lot like meditation: Your mind drifts away and you keep coming back to the question. One of the most practical, universally applicable principles I’ve ever used is: accumulate quantity and then sort.
First, clarify a problem. Take time on this first step. Try to define a problem clearly and be very specific and as accurate as you can. Then generate a list of possible solutions. Strain your brain on this one. Don’t settle for the few obvious answers that come to mind easily. Dig. Then pick the best solution. Keep in mind that creativity and selection are two different functions and need to be separated.
Another directed way to T5 is thinking about a specific question. If you ever feel stumped when you’re thinking, or you feel that your thinking has become stagnant, look at the following list of questions and find one you’d like to ponder, or come up with one of your own.
THE PRINCIPLE IS SIMPLE
Take the time to think. Let your mind sort things out. If you feel upset by something, you can find your inner peace by taking the time to think. You can just keep thinking and writing and walking in all your spare time until you are no longer upset — until you either feel fine or feel so motivated you want to get up and get busy on some of these ideas you’ve thought up.
Do you think you don’t have time for this? How much time do you spend watching TV and movies? Can you take some time from that? A movie usually takes two hours. That's a big chunk of uninterrupted time.
One of the odd facts about T5 is that it can’t be done lying down. You have to sit up or walk. When you lie down, your mind switches to a dreaming mode where keeping your attention on anything in particular becomes difficult, and you will tend to fall asleep.
I've read a lot about meditation. And one surprising fact is held in common by all of them — Japanese Zen meditation, Hindu Yoga meditation, American Silva Mind Control meditation, etc. — all of them spend an inordinate amount of time talking about what seems a very mundane and nit-picky topic: your posture while meditating. You’re supposed to keep your back straight, your hands just so, head at such-and-such an angle. The different kinds of meditation may have different postures, but they all tell their practitioners very clearly how to sit. And no matter how different they all seem, they all aim for an upright, stable posture.
And I've found that’s also best for T5. A slumping, kicking-back posture will make it almost impossible to remain alert.
TIME-PRESSURE IS UNNATURAL
Time with nothing to do is natural and necessary for good mental health. Ponder this for a moment: Do you have a lot of great childhood memories? Does it seem like you had a lot of fun back then? Have you ever wondered what you had then that you don’t have now?
Think about it. What do you think you had then that you don’t have now that would contribute to having more fun?
You know what I think it is? You had time with nothing to do. And you know what? You didn’t want it or like it, even though it contributed to your happiness.
Just as we have more carbohydrates available to us than is natural, constantly tempting us with foods we aren’t adapted to, our visual and auditory world constantly tempts us with more stimulation that we have evolved to handle.
Quiet time with nothing happening is the remedy. Whenever I have spent an hour or more doing this, I have always ended feeling profoundly calm and relaxed. My mind feels uncluttered and at peace.
It takes a little while to settle down. For fifteen minutes, sometimes twenty, your mind will be restless. You will feel bored. You'll have a craving to do something. But then your mind will start to relax and sort things out, all by itself.
If you find that after a half hour you are simply obsessing about a worry and getting nowhere, you can switch to besieging the problem, concentrating on solving a single problem (the one that's bothering you the most).
I’ve sometimes felt as if I’ve found what everyone is searching for — a path to peace of mind. In the aftermath of my newfound clarity and peace, I want to tell everyone about this great invention of mine. But of course, it isn’t my invention. It is probably the oldest self-help method there is.
Take the time to think. There’s nothing to it. Your mind will naturally do it. The only hard part is making yourself take the time. And you do have to make yourself. You always have some work to do, or something you feel you ought to be doing, or some TV program you want to watch, or any of a hundred other interesting, appealing things you want to do besides just sitting there.
Just as we are naturally drawn to eating sweets, we are naturally drawn to filling our attention with stimulation. But it is calming to restrain that impulse occasionally.
You know how difficult it is to get anywhere in a conversation when you are constantly interrupted. The same is true for dialog with yourself. There are some things you need to think through, but you are so continuously distracted, you’re accumulating unresolved issues in the back of your mind. I think this leads to extra stress hormones. That’s probably why T5 is so calming.
I once believed that the feeling of being grounded and unfrantic and deeply peaceful could only come from a religious experience. But T5 produces it very reliably.
Gandhi, Lincoln, Emerson — and many other (maybe all) great (and wise and accomplished) leaders spent an unusual amount of time doing nothing but thinking.
Decide ahead of time how long you will think, and stick to it. I suggest an hour. Do nothing. Don’t knit or whittle or floss your teeth. Make brief notes, and nothing more.
When should you T5? Whenever you feel unmotivated about your goal. When you don’t know what to do next. When you feel confused, anxious, depressed, frustrated, or unclear.
T5 can bring you peace of mind, but what does that have to do with motivation? When you solve a problem, you increase your motivation. The problem was an obstacle on your way to your goal, and you solved it. When things are nagging you in the back of your mind, things you need to think through, it brings you down. When you clear them up, you feel better, and that helps you feel more motivated.T5 is really a core activity, the key, the secret. Purposefulness is clarified by thinking. Optimism is attained in thought. You can have what you want in life (peace of mind, successful accomplishment, great relationships) if you take time to think often enough.
Do you want peace of mind? Clarity? A feeling of being grounded and centered? A feeling of certainty about what you’re doing? A clear sense of direction? All you have to do is take the time to think.
This article is excerpted from the book, Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Direct Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.