Inspire your work

What next? Preparing for Challenge — Intentional Unstructured Time

Do you ever have that sense that your brain is ‘full’? You just can’t take in any more information or stimulus … your virtual barriers go up, your mind shuts off. Or maybe you notice the frustration before you reach ‘completely full’ as things stop making sense? How effective is your learning after you reach that state?

These experiences can be a sign that we’re tired, stressed or both and need to look after our rest. At other times it can be a sign that we need to stop and make space to allow ourselves to make sense and meaning of what we’ve been experiencing or learning.

I’m grateful to my PhD supervisor for making me aware of the value of consciously making space to integrate knowledge. He’d suggested I take time out to stop and think, especially after I’d read a lot of papers. The concept made sense: I had noticed in my prior (Air Force) role that exercise helped clarify my thoughts, as did making specific time to discuss workplace challenges with colleagues. But after my operational role with its frequent interruptions I found it hard to settle into longer periods of thinking, felt indulgent about having unstructured time and was distracted by self-imposed deadlines. After I failed to make the progress my supervisor was hoping for, he insisted I spend a full day sitting in nature and allow my mind to wander. Eventually my mind settled and I made significant progress in understanding my thesis area. Since then, unstructured thinking time has been a valuable tool in my professional and personal life.

Learning isn’t simply a matter of collecting experiences or information. As John Medina explains in his book Brain Rules, our brain needs rest if we are to integrate our learning, to ‘connect the dots’. In other words, to make meaning. At a deeper level, making space can enable us to broaden and deepen our understanding of ourselves, our circumstances and our experiences, helping us to draw richer meaning and better preparing us for future experiences. This can in turn increase our capacity for growth and our capabilities for more holistic and longer-term decisions, enriching our lives and the lives of those around us.

Making meaning is a creative process – even spiritual – as well as analytical and experimental. Sometimes we have to ‘try on’ a meaning for a while and see if it fits our experience, and whether it is useful for us. It can be a solo activity, but in my experience is often both solo and communal. Sometimes meaning will evolve if you simply provide space. At other times, depending on your purpose, you may need to put conscious rational effort into it, such as when rebuilding frames in a professional context. Be patient and foster awareness of what will serve your meaning-making at the time. Watching for signs of discomfort, frustration, fatigue, confusion can help you understand where you are in your meaning-making and what you need.

Here are some practices I use often – including writing these newsletters! It’s not an exhaustive list – explore what works for you.

  • Intention setting. Before I start, I consciously set an intention. For example, if I am trying to understand a body of information or experience, I suspend expectations about a specific outcome or ‘end goal’ beyond any intention to increase my understanding. At times when I am trying to solve or address a specific problem, I set conscious intentions of that purpose rather than strict goals, to remind myself to stay in a creative space. This can help you manage any inner distractions or tension such as prematurely moving from exploring or creating to judging. You may also find over time that particular practices are more helpful to you for different purposes.

  • Sitting quietly, removing distractions. I deliberately set aside time and space for myself to do nothing but let my mind wander, explore, consider and reflect. Nature is a place that works well for me, away from distractions, expectations and rigid structure. Sometimes it can be useful to watch clouds or running water, or lie under a tree and look up at the sky.

  • Talking things over with others.

    • Not everyone is comfortable doing this, so I check with them first.
    • I check they are able to support what I need, whether that’s holding the space and reflecting my words, asking questions, or challenging or building on my ideas.
  • Writing.

  • Drawing, whether structured, such as mind-mapping, or unstructured such as doodling. Abstract drawing or painting can also work.

  • Walking or other exercise such as swimming.

Making space and time for meaning-making helps us to integrate our learning, preparing us for future challenges. It helps us understand ourselves and our circumstances better, anchoring us to our inner sense of safety, significance and situation.

Getting started: Call to mind something you’re learning at present or an unresolved challenge. Notice any mental or physical sensations arising such as tension, confusion, frustration or even excitement. Schedule a meaningful but manageable amount of time for yourself in a place that is safe for you and completely free from distractions. Set an intention for your time. Reflect on your experience and any insights that arose for you.

PS: I have more to say on meaning … stay tuned!

Waves at the beach with rocks in the foreground
© Jodi Steel 2011


Please note: Many people have suffered from mental health issues as a result of the pandemic, including people who have never experienced issues before. This newsletter series is not a substitute for professional mental health support specific to your circumstances. If you have mental health issues, please access professional mental health services before attempting any of the practices in this newsletter series. Links to some Australian organisations and their online resources are below:

Beyond Blue
Black Dog Institute

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