How to Think Like a Leader when Your Brain Drags You Down

Ruminant animals chew their food, swallow it, regurgitate it, and chew it some more*. Humans are mental cud chewers.

Research shows that you aren’t thinking about what you’re doing about half the time**. An unfocused brain mulls over things that happened in the past, things that might happen in the future, or imagined things that likely won’t happen at all.

Matthew A. Gilbert and Daniel T. Gilbert discovered that mind-wandering tends toward unhappiness, even when your mind wanders to good things**.

Image of dairy cow looking at you.

When the same thoughts keep dragging you down, it's time to do something.

Mind-wandering:

Mind-wandering often leads to worry, frustration, resentment.

Persistent rumination combined with inaction leads to helplessness. Helplessness justifies inaction and blaming. Inaction increases mental rumination. And so it goes.

When the same thoughts keep dragging you down, it’s time to do something.

How to think like a leader:

Mental rumination is most useful when it distills into decisions or results in actions.

You experience recurring worry about a team, for example. Intentionally explore options. Make a decision or take action. You might…

  1. Get an update from the team leader.
  2. Learn to trust competent others.
  3. Develop a plan of action to address your concerns.
  4. Make a list of things you can control and things you can influence.
  5. Establish checkpoints when you delegate.
  6. Train incompetent team members.
  7. Delegate to high performers when stakes are high.

Reflecting on the past or dreaming about the future is useful when it informs decisions or actions. But mind-wandering without action is harmful.

The next time you catch yourself daydreaming ask:

  1. How important is this to me?
  2. Can I do something about this? If yes…
  3. What do I want to do about this today?

The difference between success and failure is responsibility.

How might leaders deal with passive mind-wandering or negative rumination?

*What is a Ruminant Animal (cattle.ca)

**A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind (harvard.edu)