Learn what mindlessness is and some ways that you may be able to become less mindless and more mindful.
Mindlessness is a state of unawareness, of going through the motions without being consciously aware of your surroundings or your inner states. It can be described as being on autopilot or responding robotically, without conscious awareness of what you are doing, thinking, or feeling. It can be difficult, perhaps even impossible, to identify when you are in a mindless state - almost by definition you are not aware when you are mindless. As soon as you become aware of your mindlessness, you are no longer mindless.
Generally, mindlessness is considered an undesirable mental state to be in. Being unaware of the present moment, or being focused on something other than what you are doing may increase anxiety and depression while decreasing creativity and problem-solving (Brown & Ryan, 2003). Mindlessness is often understood and defined as a state of being in contrast to mindfulness, which is associated with greater overall well-being and better physical and mental health.
Mindlessness is often defined as the opposite of mindfulness. For example, noticing changes, feelings, and sensations in your body, emotions, and the world around you is considered mindful, while not noticing them is considered mindless. Some research psychologists have defined mindfulness as a construct made up of five dimensions (Baer et al. 2006).
Awareness - The ability to focus on what you are doing, thinking, or feeling without becoming distracted.
Non-reactivity - Being able to recognize when mental or emotional states are irrational, stressful, or harmful and being able to psychologically disengage from these harmful states.
Non-judgement - The ability to be emotionally aware without labeling your emotional experience as good or bad. Being able to acknowledge and practice acceptance of your cognitive experiences without judgment or self-criticism.
Describing - The ability to observe experiences as they occur. Being able to actively, and cognitively recognize your experiences in passing, and then move forward without dwelling.
Observing - The ability to pay attention to a variety of sensory experiences in the present moment - sights, sounds, smells, etc. This includes sensitivity to internal phenomena like bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions.
Mindlessness, according to these accounts, is being unable to articulate and describe things that you notice, being distractible or unable to focus, and being unable to accept yourself and the world. Generally, being more mindful and less mindless is associated with better mental health including less neuroticism and higher emotional intelligence.
What Causes Mindlessness?
Being aware takes mental effort and cognitive resources. Being mindful and avoiding mindlessness may require you to remain aware of, and regulate your decisions, evaluations, personal states, environments, options, and choices. Limited cognitive resources can quickly be used up (Baumesiter et al., 1998).
Many of us may have experienced being able to make mindful choices in the morning - choosing oatmeal instead of a donut for breakfast, being alert and attentive in the 8am lecture or meeting, and being present and engaged for the first conversation of the day, only to find that the energy to keep this up throughout the day just isn’t there. By the end of the day, you may say yes to the third piece of cake, may doodle on your notebook at the four o’clock meeting, and may nod along without listening to the conversation on the ride home. Mindfulness is cognitively difficult and mindlessness may simply be easier, especially if you are tired.
How to Become Less Mindless
You may be able to counteract mindlessness by cultivating mindfulness in any number of ways including meditation, yoga, tai chi, and some forms of psychological therapy (Baer et al., 2004). Although all of these practices have different approaches, they do have some commonalities. Notably, they all encourage conscious and deliberate control of attention. Specific techniques for increasing mindfulness may include (Carson and Langer, 2006):
Actively looking for novelty in your environment - Actively noticing new things in your environment or actively noticing new features of things previously taken for granted. When we believe that we are encountering something new, we tend to approach it more mindfully than if we believe we already know what we are facing.
Thinking about puzzles and paradoxes - Actively thinking about things that may be ambiguous or difficult to understand may increase your ability to tolerate ambiguity and may decrease anxiety associated with uncertainty. Paradoxes may include conflicting feelings such as both loving and hating your job.
Considering situations from multiple perspectives - Look at each situation from the perspective of other people. Remember that no one is the villain in their own story.
Considering alternative understandings of problematic parts of yourself - You may be able to reframe problems as opportunities or shortcomings as assets. An ordeal may be an adventure. Impulsivity may be spontaneity. A boring day may be an opportunity for reflection.
Starting a mindfulness journal - Write down significant events of your day. Periodically, you can review the events in your journal, and try to notice new things and perspectives. Practicing mindfully viewing events and situations in retrospect may help to put you in a mindful frame of mind which may then help you avoid mindlessness in your daily life.
We all fall into mindless states at one time or another, whether it's because we are tired, overwhelmed, bored, or just because it's easier to work on autopilot sometimes. These moments of mindlessness may not necessarily be problematic if they are short and if we still feel that we are actively present in our own lives. However, excessive mindlessness can cause us to feel that we aren’t actively participating in our lives.
Baer, R. A., Smith, G. T., & Allen, K. B. (2004). Assessment of mindfulness by self-report: The Kentucky Inventory of Mindfulness Skills. Assessment, 11(3), 191-206.
Baer, R. A., Smith, G. T., Hopkins, J., Krietemeyer, J., & Toney, L. (2006). Using self-report assessment methods to explore facets of mindfulness. Assessment, 13(1), 27-45.
Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of personality and social psychology, 74(5), 1252.
Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of personality and social psychology, 84(4), 822.
Carson, S. H., & Langer, E. J. (2006). Mindfulness and self-acceptance. Journal of rational-emotive and cognitive-behavior therapy, 24(1), 29-43.