Think Less

In several management paradigms such as Lean or the Theory of Constraints, one of the key principles in ensuring good flow of products or services through a process is keeping the amount of Work in Process (WIP) – that is, work that has been started but not yet finished – low.

For example, in a sales process, if your lead-generation team produces 100 leads a day but your sales team can only vet 10 a day, pretty soon you’re going to have an ever-growing backlog of unvetted leads. As that backlog gets bigger, the amount of time from when a lead is first generated to the time it gets vetted gets longer. If you want flow, keep WIP low.

These same dynamics – and even the word ‘flow’ – show up in human psychology as well.

Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi’s famous work on being “in flow” – that state of relaxed state of peak performance also known as being “in the zone” – posits that one’s emotional state is often a function of how the difficulty of a given task compares to one’s skill level in it: when the task is too easy, you’re bored; when the task is too hard, you’re frustrated or stressed. And the task is just about right – when you are being pushed to your limit but not beyond it – you enter flow.

Csikszentmihalyi’s model of psychological flow.

Also consider that in the popular Getting Things Done productivity system, one of the most important habits is consistently getting all of your ideas and to-do items out of your head and ‘on to paper’ (digital or not). This frees your mind from having to remember and keep track of it all. People who have gone through this process often find that they they are better able to focus and get more productive.

Less is More

In all of these cases, the amount of ‘stuff’ in the first step in our process- whether sales leads, the level of challenge in a given task, or the amount of to-dos in our list – exceeds the ability of the next step to handle all that stuff. Let’s call the step that’s producing the ‘stuff’ step ‘A’, and the next, step ‘B’.

One way to deal with this – to improve the flow – is to increase the capacity of step B. In our examples this might be hiring new salespeople, practicing to improve your skill level, or improving your memory. The problem with this approach is that while some solutions to increase capacity are cheap and easy (e.g. writing down all your to-dos in an organized way), most of the time these things take additional time and resources. In the meantime, the longer you get things continue on the same way, the more the backlog increases and the problem only gets worse.

Instead, what is often required – counterintuitively – to maintain and then improve flow is to first stop Step A from producing as much. Producing less before the bottleneck in the process reduces WIP and improves flow. After flow is improved, you can then more easily work on improving the capacity of the next step. And this all seems to work in both things and people alike.

“No Mind” = No Thoughts

I think is one of the reasons meditation is so powerful. One of the things you learn after just a few weeks of meditating is that we humans tend to be thinking – that is, producing thoughts – all. the. time. Indeed, it often takes many months of practice meditating to be able to go for more than a few seconds without thought. In many ways, a big part of meditation’s ability to help people is that it trains them to think less.

To be clear, I’m not disparaging the value of thinking. Our cognitive ability is what distinguishes us as a species, and sometimes thinking deeply about something is absolutely recommended. But too much of anything can be problematic. When we’re so lost in thought we’re not really present with our loved ones. When we’re so stressed thinking about work or money we can’t sleep. When we’re so focused on thinking about all the things we want instead of enjoying what we have that we live our lives in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction. Those are all symptoms of too much thought.

I don’t think meditation’s ability to decrease the production of thought and increase the frequency and duration of flow in one’s life is a coincidence. Rather, one’s psychology is related to the the structure of one’s brain, which in turns obeys the same physical laws as a manufacturing or sales process.

So if you want more flow in your life, consider a few suggestions:

  1. Get your to-do list organized.
  2. Reduce the difficulty of a difficult task, whether by breaking it into smaller pieces, getting help, or delegating.
  3. Meditate.

And try, if you can, to think less.