I was recently at a training day (on healthcare quality improvement coaching) where we explored this article that outlines the importance of creativity for improvement work. Organisations that have a culture of encouraging people to think creatively, and that welcome all ideas, tend to be better able to adapt and improve. This is because they can draw upon the wealth of resource that staff members bring through their own creative and collaborative problem solving.
The article talks about how we can cultivate ‘lateral thinking’ – a term coined in 1967 and developed by Edward De Bono, a leader in creative and conceptual thinking.
What is lateral thinking? You might already have an intuitive sense of it, but let’s explore it a little using an analogy from the article.
Imagine that your mind is a landscape, with information flowing through it as water. The well-used pathways create ruts in the mind, which gradually become rivers and streams. What this means is that when new information comes in, as rain, it will naturally flow into the existing waterways that have been used many times before.
Translate to a real life example. Faced with a stressful situation, without the time to think and adapt, our brains will automatically take us down the same patterns of responding we have used many times before. This is not always the most helpful thing.
How can we start to change this? What if we could challenge our automatic reactions and choose different ways of responding? Going back to the landscape waterways, I like to think of this work as being like channeling the beaver. Beavers work steadily to build dams which can divert massive bodies of water. How do we do that same work for our minds?
Edward De Bono came up with a whole range of creativity tools that can be used to help us shift from ‘linear thinking’ to ‘lateral thinking’ i.e. thinking of alternative solutions that we haven’t thought of before. For example, imagining that one element of our usual solution no longer exists. Or using a random word generator to prompt you to think about solutions stemming from that word. (It sounds bizarre, but having tried it out on the training day, works surprisingly well!)
But let’s bring it back to thinking about how we manage stress.
If our minds are defaulting to the same, frequently unhelpful, thinking patterns whenever we are stressed, how can we change this?
It’s going to start with noticing how you feel in the moment, or as soon after it as you can bring yourself back down to earth. Being able to ground yourself and notice how you’re feeling takes practice – it’s about rebuilding our response ‘rivers’ (is that too much of this metaphor?) so that rather than going straight to our default reaction, we start remembering to pause and check in with ourselves.
Usually, once you have taken a moment to breathe, check in with how your body feels, and what emotions and thoughts are coming up, you’re in a better position to respond from a place of perspective.
In May 2020, the College of Psychiatrists in Ireland published this article on how clinicians can bring mindful moments into their daily work life. In the supplementary documents, you’ll see a curated list of short activities that can be done during the working day to get you practicing coming back down to earth and checking in with how you’re feeling. (Applicable for non-clinicians too!) Further treasure troves of resources on mindful self-compassion can be found here and here.
The important thing to remember in all this is that mind habits have been developed over our whole lifetime. So it takes time, and regular practice, to change them. So taking stock from the impressive work of the beavers, how can you start bringing mindful moments into your life, little and often? Start with something small, like checking in with how you are feeling (e.g. with a ‘RAIN’ process) every time you brush your teeth.