The Intersection of Mental Models and Mindfulness


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A great audiobook always makes the commute educational. Charles Duhigg’s Smarter Faster Better is one of the more interesting ones I’ve listened too and helped generate the idea for this post.

The harrowing description of Quantas Airways Flight 32, as described by Charles Duhigg in Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Productivity in Life and Business, struck me as not only an amazing story but also an interesting, somewhat hidden, link to the world of mindfulness. Charles uses the story to emphasize the importance of building mental models as it relates to productivity and decision making, recounting the in-flight decision making that saved the airplane from certain disaster. You can find the full read over at lifehacker.

The idea behind mental models centres around the notion that we can train our minds to anticipate, and reach decisions quicker, through creating scenarios in our minds about how events may unfold. It occurred to me while reading this that it’s something many of us are actively engaged in day to day including myself. The easiest example I relate too is commuting too and from work. Paying attention to what is going on throughout the drive and building stories as I go. It happens as quickly as our brain processing information, so these stories can manifest in real-time. As we build these alternate scenarios we are essentially preparing ourselves should something happen as the pilots did before and during the Quantas flight.

Imagine driving down a single lane road and there is a car in the oncoming lane. We can begin to build models such as what would happen if the car swerved towards you, and how you might then react react. If the car swerved into the ditch, what would you do? Would you pull over and immediately get out of the car or perhaps pull over, call 911, and check to make sure it was safe to exit the vehicle. The first time you consider this it may be simple. You pull over. As you layer on these mental models it may become more intricate. You may recall your first aid kid in the trunk and consider if you would grab it or not. Traffic is busy so your own safety is of concern so which mirrors would you check and in what order. As the various events unfold in our mind we are constantly performing the calculations on how to respond, so should an event occur we can move quicker and ultimately be more decisive.

“So what’s the solution? If you want to do a better job of paying attention to what really matters, of not getting overwhelmed and distracted by the constant flow of emails and conversations and interruptions that are part of every day, of knowing what to focus on and what to ignore, get into the habit of telling yourself stories. Narrate your life as it’s occurring, and then when your boss suddenly asks you a question during a meeting or an urgent note arrives and you have only minutes to reply, the spotlight inside your head will be ready to shine the right way.” – Charles Duhigg

Now imagine the same drive except you are busy checking texts, or perhaps day dreaming about something you watched on TV the night before; lost in your thoughts. Game of Thrones tends to do that. It is however putting you in automatic mode and preventing you from develop new models as you process the information around you. If something were to happen, there is no model to quickly reach for within the mind.  It’s an interesting concept when you then look to mindfulness and consider what being present is really about.  My initial reaction to hearing Charles’ description was that it was the opposite of mindfulness. It sounded like the idea of getting lost in the story line of our life and not being present to the moment. We aren’t being present, we are driving down the road telling ourselves stories.

After some reflection however, it became clear to me that this is really mindfulness in practice. If the same scenario plays out in the context of being present, I’m aware of my surroundings including the oncoming traffic, the feel of the car, paying attention to where my car is relative to the lines on the road, etc. Essentially monitoring the activity and not drifting into a mindless activity or that automatic mode of last night’s TV show. Mental models aren’t asking us to get lost in the various scenarios we are creating. Once the car has past, we are paying attention to what happens next but have allowed our minds to assess the scenario in real time and let it pass. There may be another car or truck coming or we may be approaching another vehicle in our line and again the model begins to develop. We have moved past the story of the car we passed and thus are remaining present.

“The present moment is the only moment available to us and it is the door to all other moments.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

To be mindful in our activities, but actively assessing various scenarios, we are building on our ability to be present in any given moment, while being considerate life as it happen.  Being able to drop the story line, as in mindfulness practice, should help the process as we move to the next moment; not living in the past, or carrying with us these old narrations.

Consider the idea the next time you are working on a project. Say a presentation to your boss. As you are working through the presentation start building your own mental models of the presentation itself. Think about the message you are trying to convey, and the types of questions that you may get asked; what would your response be? It’s not so much about the story behind the questions ,or getting lost in the story itself, but simply that you are considering various scenarios as you progress through the presentation. An example of getting lost would be asking the question, then developing a story about how anxious you are to be presenting and spiralling into self-doubt. This is a risk with mental models. The solution is that we have trained ourselves to be present. We have trained ourselves to identify story lines that we are caught in and how to come back to the breath. Reminding ourselves to focus on the physical movements of the breath, and let it guide us back to the present moment.

I’m interested to hear other mindfulness practitioners and their own experiences with the ideas of productivity. Even more specifically mental models. I know the balance is something a lot of us struggle with. As Alan Watts has so succinctly proclaimed: “Stop measuring days by degree of productivity and start experiencing them by degree of presence.” Productivity at our day jobs is an important aspect to work and so being mindful while finding ways to be productive is not something we can take for granted.

If you are interested more in mental models, Princeton has a great summary of the science  over at their site.






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