the productive experience of being able to do nothing

Due to some conversations that popped up while giving a GTD workshop this past saturday, I recalled and shared a very interesting psychological experiment that was done in the US some time ago. I thought it would be good to share it here with you too.

To make a long story short, this experiment consisted in showing a gallery with paintings to several different people. They would then create a fake contest and each person would be selected as the “winner” – not knowing, of course, of all the others too. The winner could then choose one of the paintings to take home. Before telling each person the good news, they split them up in 3 different groups which got the news in 3 different ways.

Group A – before leaving the exhibition they would be informed of the contest, and had to choose a painting on the spot before going home.
Group B – before leaving the exhibition they would be informed of the contest, given a printed catalog with all the paintings available, and asked to return after one week to choose which one to take home.
Group C – nothing was told to them. After one week, they would be informed by phone of this contest, and be asked to come to the gallery immediately and choose a painting to take home on the same day.

So far so good. Well, after one month passed, they called each participant and inquired them about how satisfied they were with the choice of painting they made. Curious about the results?

Group C had – by far – the highest level of satisfaction. So, what was this all about? This experiment was related with a series of studies that are researching the important “background processing” that is done by our unconscious mind. Summarizing the conclusion of the experiment:

  • People belonging to Group B would perhaps be the ones expected to have a higher satisfaction rate as they had time to be at home to think, analyze and decide the best option. However, that intense thinking done in the conscious mind proved to be no better than the ones in Group A that had to make an instant choice.
  • The ones from Group C never knew they would have to choose a painting. That made the mind “let go” of the subject, but only  at a conscious level. On a deeper unconscious state, the mind was still processing the information and creating neuro-connections about it. Once the decision had to be made, it was done more “intuitively” and more rightly!

Although this blog post is not about GTD, since I started with it, I’ll also leave a quick note: this experiment came to my mind while I was explaining that the “Intuitive choices” that GTD gradually helps you take, result from having the “big picture” in your mind – that is, that complete inventory of commitments – AND being able to relax and enjoy the empty space that results from having control of your work.

But my point with this was not to talk about GTD. My point was to once again highlight the importance of respecting the quite times that our mind needs so much. Nowaday’s we are getting so much overloaded with information every single second that it can not be good. Even when we get the time to be free of it, we get so used to it, that we carry more information with us to wherever we go (think about podcasts, audiobooks, rss feeds, stuff to read, etc etc). The more we keep our minds engaged in activities, the less our unconscious mind is able to find the free time to do important processing tasks that help us in so many ways.

It’s getting more and more important to find silence from this overload of information, to disconnect from inputs and connect with life itself. (this reminded me of my own “internet sabbath” thing.. going to reconsider doing that again ;) )


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