Keeping an open mind, even for the most free-spirited among us, is harder than it sounds. Our minds have evolved to identify, discern, and judge in order to make sense of the world around us. When thinking about a specific task or your career as a whole, you’ll need to make decisions, and some outcomes are certainly more preferable than others. By bringing a little mindfulness to the process, you can cultivate a flexibility and openness that will benefit you in all areas of life.
The Mindful Open Mind
Whether you’re deciding which job to apply for or making a call about an issue at work, chances are you tend to make these judgments based on prior experience. You might also notice that fear of potential outcomes and future repercussions might influence your decision as well. Remembering past experiences and projecting into the future are important ways to strategize, but they can cloud your judgment if you cling too hard to the concepts you come across.
Mindfulness, as we’ve discussed before, is the act of noticing what’s happening in the present, on purpose and without judgment. We’ve covered what the present is, what purpose or intention means, and where the part about suspending judgment comes in. Suspending judgment isn’t about pretending all decisions are equal, or that you don’t have preferences about how you want things to turn out. What it does mean is that you can realize that these anxieties about the future, and ruminations on past experiences are taking place in the present moment.
What are Cognitive Biases?
We all have cognitive biases, small errors in thinking that impact how we process incoming information. Becoming aware of these biases can help you make decisions that are responsive to the current situation, rather than mindlessly clinging to models that are no longer applicable, or acting out of fear about a future that has yet to happen. Knowing about cognitive biases is part of the process of being open-minded, but you’re not all the way there just by knowing that the biases exist. Many distortions in thinking remain unconscious to us, so simply noticing them by evaluating the thinking mind might leave you with some enormous blind spots. Some examples of common cognitive biases:
Confirmation bias – This is the tendency to interpret new information as a confirmation of your existing beliefs or theories, and a tendency to ignore or filter out any information that conflicts with your existing worldview. Your mind likes to prove itself right, even if it is about something negative or irrational! If you have the view that your boss always ignores you, your mind will filter in information that proves this view correct and you’ll likely overlook the times your boss did, in fact, consider your opinion.
Negativity bias – This refers to the tendency to gravitate towards negative or unpleasant incoming information while filtering out more positive experiences. The mind is simply more sensitive to negative experiences and more likely to remember them. This was useful for us early on in our evolution, but can really distort our experience of the world and skew our minds towards the negative if we’re not aware of it.
Projection bias – This is an assumption that others think about things the same way you do. We often overlook the fact that someone might have completely different priorities and perspectives than we do. It can be very tempting to assume that you are right all the time, and that others are or should be on board. But this distortion in thinking can keep you trapped in an echo chamber of your own beliefs without accounting for the life experience and differing attitudes of others.
How to Use Mindfulness to Overcome Biases
Rather than introspecting or asking questions about how or why you think the way you do, mindfulness means noticing what these thoughts are without judgment. Thoughts you enjoy might come up, as well as thoughts you don’t like too much. Many will be somewhere in between these two extremes. The practice of mindfulness means simply to observe these processes as they happen, without interfering.
So, take some time to yourself to reflect on an upcoming decision and notice what comes up. See if you can relax your mind’s tendency to immediately cling to a specific solution or to judge yourself or the situation. Just observe. Take note of what comes up. What are some assumptions you’ve made about yourself or the situation that might be limiting you? When you feel yourself veering back to judgment, come back to the present.
You’ve just used mindfulness to build a foundation from which to make a wise decision and take action! It’s likely that there is a wide spectrum of connections and solutions available to you that your mind is filtering out due to various cognitive biases and limiting beliefs. Take some time to open up and who knows what you’ll come across.