Monkey-mind_web

Last week was one of those non-stop weeks. There were a million little things that needed to be done: emails, responses, calendar invites, social media stuff, work stuff, personal stuff, lots (and lots) of stuff. And each one of these activities started another set of activities, each needing to be tracked, and each requiring a set of small decisions. By the end of the week, I felt very productive, but I also noticed a change in my thinking patterns.

I had monkey mind.

I’m not sure who originally coined the phrase “monkey mind” but one of my teachers uses it to describe the state of mind in which you bounce back and forth from activity to activity or thought to thought. One second you’re thinking about an email you need to respond to, the next you’re thinking about what you’re going to make for dinner, and the next you’re thinking about your calendar. This is the general state of mind in the modern, hyper connected world (and perhaps it always has been humanity’s general state of mind).

Monkey mind is good for getting lots of little stuff done. If you really need to complete dozens of little activities, having a jumpy mind might be an advantage, but what happens when you need to have a calm mind, a creative mind, or a mind open to new possibilities?

One of my favorite parts of my job is facilitating workshops. I love the challenge of getting a team of people to think of new and creative ways to solve their problems. I’ve been facilitating workshops for almost 20 years now and I’ve noticed a change: there are a lot more monkey minds in the room than there used to be. It is harder for teams to focus for long (or sometimes even medium) periods of time. I’m sure there are lots of opinions about why this is, but that is a blog for a different day. What I’m concerned with here is the impact that a room full of monkey minds has on these kinds of workshops. Monkey mind means that each participant comes into these workshops “tuned” to a set of activities very different than those aligned to the purpose of the workshop. As a result, their individual contribution to the workshop suffers and so does the performance of the overall team.

This is a pretty serious issue. In a few weeks, one of my colleagues and I will facilitate the strategic planning for a large Colorado non-profit. This session will set their five-year vision and a foundation for future fundraising. It’s a pretty important meeting. What happens if it doesn’t go as well as it could because the minds we need to tap are too busy monkeying around?

Luckily there are some things we can do to tame “monkey mind.” I suggest trying the following three techniques (which we will be using in our upcoming workshop) the next time you have to participate in a critical workshop (or any day you need to be creative or solve complex problems):

  1. No news: This one is the hardest one for me. And if you are like me and start your day with news, shower with news, eat breakfast with news, and drive with news, it will be hard for you too. But the constant patter of news, the jumping every few minutes to a new story, and the commercials that interrupt it several times an hour only serve to feed our monkey mind. So, on the morning of an important team workshop, or on a day when you need to be creative, turn off the news. It’s probably best to just have it quiet during this time, but if you really need some audio company, music or a book on tape could work.
  1. Meditate: I know that meditation has become, perhaps, too fashionable now, but it really does help calm monkey mind, and you don’t have to do anything overly complicated in order to see the difference. Sitting quietly for five minutes while focusing on your own breath will have amazing benefits (of course 10 minutes is better). There are tons of online guides and apps to help, but anyone can find five minutes to sit quietly to prepare their mind for the task at hand.
  1. Draw (or color): Personally, I can’t draw anything recognizable, but I love to doodle. My sister-in-law swears by the calming effect of the grown-up coloring books that are so popular now. Much like meditation, allowing your brain to focus for 5-10 minutes on drawing or coloring has a remarkably calming effect on your monkey mind. Try it and see if you feel calmer and more creative after a few minutes.

I hope these three techniques help. Try them the next time you need to be creative or work with a team. And, try them as a team. You will be surprised at how much better you perform.