Forget Mindfulness. Say Hello to Automaticity.

Mindfulness is having its moment.

According to, mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.

When we’re mindful, we reduce stress, enhance performance, gain insight and awareness through observing our own mind, and increase our attention to others’ well-being.

Mindfulness meditation gives us a time in our lives when we can suspend judgment and unleash our natural curiosity about the workings of the mind, approaching our experience with warmth and kindness—to ourselves and others.

Given the stress of the past few years, more people seem to be turning to mindfulness as way to manage that stress.

Earlier this year, a synthesis of randomized controlled trials revealed that mindfulness-based interventions had small to moderate benefits for a number of health outcomes, including stress, anxiety, and depression. That said, the effects of mindfulness were smaller and less consistent when compared with those of other therapies, and some effects appeared to fade months after the intervention. Taken together, the results suggest that mindfulness-based interventions may be better than nothing for some outcomes but that more research is needed to compare mindfulness with other therapies. (Scientific American)

However, psychological research has also revealed that in some circumstances it’s important to be mindless. That is, as we develop skill in complex tasks, we can perform them with increasing facility until attention seems to be unnecessary. Everyday examples range from riding a bike to chopping cucumbers to brushing your teeth.

Underlying this state of “automaticity” (as cognitive psychologists call it) are mental processes that can be executed without paying attention to them.

Paying attention is critical when learning a new task, but paying too much attention can be harmful once you have mastered a skill. This may be why some people choke under pressure, since they may start to focus too much on the mechanics of the task at hand, similar to what mindfulness is seeking to do.

So sometimes it is better, once you have become an expert at a task, to just let your mind wander while performing such a task.

In one study, skilled golfers performed substantially worse when they focused on their swing than when they paid attention to irrelevant sounds.

In another study of golfers, participants who were encouraged to think about something else—specifically, a song they knew by heart—improved when the stakes were high, compared to a control group who were given no intervention.

I think this is relevant for students. I think many times students overstudy when prepping for a test, and then some of them choke a bit under the pressure when it is test time as a result of all that preparation.

So my takeaway is that mindfulness can help someone to become an expert at something since it forces you to focus on the details of what you are doing. Once you have then mastered that skill and it is time to perform, let your muscle memory mindlessly take over, and enjoy the moment. Doing so would seem to alleviate the pressure of performing, leading to a better outcome.

I know many readers practice mindfulness; I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on this topic…

*image from


58 thoughts on “Forget Mindfulness. Say Hello to Automaticity.

  1. Everything you said makes sense to me. The Buddha, who taught mindfulness, also taught the Middle Way. That is, be moderate in all things, and don’t take anything to an extreme, including mindfulness. The stronger your mindfulness, the less you’re able to do anything, so you have to loosen it up some if you want to get anything accomplished.

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  2. The word mindfulness turn me off. Not because it’s not important. But because the “fad”of mindfulness. This site and others want to make it trendy, hip, cool. Like “oh I have a mindfulness app”. To me the subject of mindfulness shows a kindergarten understanding that lacks really knowing oneself, and deep inner exploration. But who teaches this? Certainly no one at Villanova or any university. It isn’t taught at all. Is lack of mindfulness the reason for all the crime, criminality, hate, discord, strife, depression, and anxiety in our society? I don’t know. It just seems like this country possesses very little mindfulness, and then someone accepts it as a buzzword or fad, but when the fad fades, all is forgotten. I found this video and realized that the might of the thoughts is really more important than I previously knew..

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    1. thanks for sharing your thoughts, Greg. I agree that mindfulness has certainly become a buzzword and perhaps a bit of a fad, but I still believe there are lots of benefits from engaging in mindfulness. And certainly we can do better as a society with how we treat ourselves, each other, and our environment. Thanks for that link; is there a reason why he is wearing a helmet?

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    1. but watching tv also provides a wonderful opportunity for just letting our minds wander. I guess it depends what you are watching and how engaged you want to be. Quite the F1 race yesterday…

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  3. How about chopping cucumbers with your teeth while riding a bike?

    Actually, walking is pretty mindless, but I do some of my best thinking then.

    I’m not much of a golfer, but I do think there is some truth in the concept of thinking about something else besides one’s swing. I coached little league baseball for a couple of years, and some of the poor kids had to listen to a mountain of advice from everyone. Simplifying it to “see the ball, hit the ball seemed to work better.”

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    1. chopping cucumbers while on a bike sounds like it has the potential to be an Olympic sport… 🙂

      and I also like to let my mind wander when doing some cardio.

      and I think most times, keeping something as simple as possible is the best approach…

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  4. I agree that being mindful could have a negative impact on performance, especially with a task we have mastered. But I do not use mindfulness to be focused on completing a task. I use it to more deeply connect with the world around me when I am meditating and there are no tasks to be seen to. Relaxation techniques and guided breathing would be more useful to a student taking a test. The worse thing for most students when being tested is the anxiety they bring with them.

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    1. thanks, Brad, for sharing your insights. I knew you meditated and so I was curious how that fit into mindfulness. Your approach of not engaging on other tasks while meditating seems to make the most sense to me, rather than trying to be mindful while doing tasks throughout the day. Yes, students do put a lot of pressure on themselves, and sometimes they can reach a breaking point, which can cause poor performance…

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  5. But how can you be sure that you have ever actually mastered something, especially a golf swing? I’ve been mindless all my life and I think I’ll stay that way: I’ve mastered the condition, after all…

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  6. My family doctor, a few years back, offered classes in mindfulness. I had wanted to sign up bc my biggest problem is staying present (constantly thinking of the past or future) and staying focused (always thinking of what else I need to do). Thanks for the weblink !

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  7. I don’t know anything about mindfulness. As far as golf, I think relaxed concentration is the key. One swing thought versus none or multiple swing thoughts. A study claimed that drinking while playing helps, to a point. Performance improved while drinking up to three beers. Four and more beers and performance went downhill.

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  8. My wife meditates daily and gets a lot of peace and solace from it. On the other hand, meditating drives me nuts. I get that feeling of peace from running or biking alone. I could be the poster child for your argument.

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      1. I encouraged her to read and comment on your blog. I wish she would, but as best as I can remember she’s only ever commented on my blog once and it was because she was upset that I kept beating the same dead horse.

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  9. I totally agree that there are adverse effects to overthinking, and this story comes to mind: Someone once asked a man with a long beard if he slept with his beard over or under his blanket. The man didn’t know, so he planned to check it out. That night, he slept with his beard over the blanket, and couldn’t sleep. Then he slept with it under his blanket. Nothing either. Legend has it the man has never slept since.

    Moral of the story: Don’t overthink things.

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  10. The conclusion methinks(its) a fad so someone said and I agree…I just go for a walk…it clears my mind which needs clearing from Monday to Wednesday then for the rest of the week I let my thoughts wander to wherever they take me and that’s my blog post…and sometimes my best ones …Interesting post 🙂 x

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    1. interesting perspective, Carol. I’ve tried the mindfulness thing a couple of times and found it hard. Like you, I prefer to let my mind wander while doing mindless tasks, such as cardio exercise…

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  11. Great discussion! I can see some of these thoughts being part of your encouragement to your students. Being to find that special zone and live there for a few minutes or a few hours can be a blessing.

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