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For as long as I can remember, I have been picking olives with my family in my native Turkey. We normally gather as a group in late autumn and start working in a sea of olive trees. This task involves using our bodies and our senses: picking the small fruits from the branches, carefully selecting the ripe olives, and discarding the too mushy and shriveled olives.
It’s a tradition I’ve kept going every fall, even though I’ve been growing my company, Jotform, for the past 16 years. Call it a break from tech life, if you will, but I’ll say that for me it’s much more than that: a mindfulness practice—one that allows for exchange of thoughts and reflection.
In her fascinating story for Fast company† contributor, Natalie Nixon, speaks of the need for entrepreneurs to incorporate more “invisible work” into their schedules. In her definition, this includes “deep observation, listening, daydreaming, sitting with our intuition, thinking about questions about a challenge or opportunity after an encounter, and then rephrasing those questions.”
“It’s the feverish scribbling or typing of new ideas that are emerging at the moment,” she adds.
But what struck me most about Nixon’s article is that she also notes the power of the mind-body connection to achieve this kind of state. When she asks the following question: “How do we activate more possibilities to be in our body more often, to wonder and to think??” I think of my hometown, I think of being outside, the sun on my face – and just being present.
You see, most of my best and brightest ideas have come from my time doing this “invisible work” in nature. Whether it’s my walks in the park or my time meditating in my garden – these are all moments when I felt most embodied in my imagination.
Why mind-wandering is essential for entrepreneurs
When I was a new CEO, it was king to be as productive as possible in the office. I hopped from meeting to meeting, going from reviewing product errors to handling customer phone calls until the end of the day. All my time was traceable – from morning to night.
Of course, this didn’t allow much to marinate ideas.
“In a productivity-obsessed world, mind wandering has a bad reputation,” writes Clifton Mark CBC life† “The ideal is: focus like a laser beam and blast tasks off your list.”
With time and experience, I started doing things differently than when I started my startup. First, I started taking more breaks during the day. I have stopped having lunch in front of my screen and no longer calling after work.
Below are just a few ways I’ve benefited from letting my mind wander more.
Related: To find solutions, try defocusing. Here’s how.
1. It helps cultivate my creativity
There is a quote from the poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau that I especially love: “Live in every passing season; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and surrender to the influence of the earth. “
It’s no surprise that if we allow ourselves to spend more time in nature, we stray more, which in turn magnifies our “divergent thinking.” Some researchers have even suggested it can “serve as a foundation for creative inspiration.”
In simpler terms, if we are not knee-deep in our tasks and our bodies are free of limitations, our minds are also free to connect the dots in exciting new ways.
Flickers of ideas that you might have thought of during a meeting are fully fleshed out. Perhaps Nixon explains it best when she says, “Opportunities to reconnect with our bodies to understand our work are ideal for activating creativity through intuition, curiosity and wonder.”
Related: Here’s How To Encourage Creative Thinking In Kids
2. It helps me to find solutions more easily
In 2021 we launched our product Jotform tables, which we had been working on and fine-tuning for three years. That’s a lot of time in the tech world, but it didn’t matter to me. What did issue was to create something that solved our users’ problems.
Apart from practicing a daily dose of patience, it gave me the space to wander my mind which helped me to constantly imagine solutions and new ideas.
“Just jumping your mind from one topic to another without an overarching theme or goal can be very liberating,” writes New York Times contributor Malia Wollan.
So, how can you start reaping these benefits for yourself?
According to Wollan, we can “facilitate unrestricted thinking by engaging in an easy, repetitive activity like walking.” I have had the daily habit of walking outside for years and can directly attribute my solution-oriented ability to this practice.
Related: 10 Myths About Creativity You Should Stop Believing Right Now
3. It helps me to control my own thoughts and feelings
I believe that as entrepreneurs it is our responsibility to talk more openly about mental health. The startup culture is notorious for avoiding the subject altogether.
But here’s the thing: The nature of our work can be highly stressful — leaving us prone to depression and anxiety. That’s because many of us often make the mistake of linking our self-esteem to the success of our business.
There are many highs and lows in this industry, and it can be difficult to recognize when we are teetering on the brink of burnout. But when I disconnect on the weekend and start a nature-based activity, I can stop and think. I can handle the ups and downs of the week in a safe space. More than that, it allows me to check in with myself; I can analyze and put frustrations into perspective.
I believe that the only way to take care of our mental and physical well-being is to take the necessary breaks so that our unfiltered thoughts and emotions become visible. And I agree with Nixon when she suggests programming these out.
“Think of breaks scaled into multiple time blocks,” she writes. “Take breaks during the day, but also take small breaks throughout the year. Try to be alone for a day every quarter and gradually increase this to monthly solo days.”
Every fall when I go back to Turkey, I know I’ll return refreshed and ready to keep innovating – as long as I give myself that space to do absolutely nothing but pick ripened olives from their branches.
Related: 5 Ways to Boost Creativity in Your Employees