Sometimes your thoughts don’t help.

Psychology researchers at the University of Chicago wondered what would happen if students took a few minutes to jot down all their worries just before taking an exam. They idea was to clear the working memory of anything that could interfere with the mental clarity the students needed to perform well on the test. The conclusion: clearing your mind can increase your grade.

“People are in this stressful situation and they worry about it and the consequences,” said Professor Sian Beilock at the University of Chicago. “These worries are taking up resources that should be dedicated to the task. Putting pen to paper appears to offload these worries.”

If you follow sports, think about what the opposing team does if there is a critical foul shot or field goal to be made at the end of the game. The opposing coach calls time out in the hope that it gives the athlete time to worry about his or her performance—time to let a non-supportive thought to get in the way.

At work, consider the employees who have questions or concerns that they would love to discuss with their boss, but the time never seems right. Not knowing or worrying about what the boss thinks can get in the way of getting work done.

Worry, questions, concerns—these are thoughts that limit us, whether taking a test, making a field goal, or having a conversation with the boss. They get in the way of performance, and they can erode our sense of well-being.

Suppressing it doesn’t work!

When some thought or concern is messing with you, getting your mind off it is not easy. In fact, research shows that when people are instructed not to think about a specific topic, it makes it even harder to get that topic out of their minds. Telling yourself not to think about your worry is not the answer.

This brings me back to the study on test takers. What these researchers did was give the subjects an opportunity for clearing their minds, allowing them to focus and produce improved results.

Gallwey’s question gives us access to getting clear

Timothy Gallwey, author of The Inner Game of Work, had this wonderful insight: Whenever you are not at your best, there is simply a thought in the way. And if you can share that thought with someone else, you will be able to set it aside while you perform.

This is a rephrasing of coaching expert Gallwey’s question, which he designed to help people clear their minds before performing:

Is there anything at all about which you are curious, wondering, anxious, or concerned? If so, tell me.

Effective people notice when they are annoyed or anxious—not at their best. Then they identify and deal with those thoughts.

Effective organizations also realize that unhealthy background thoughts can also become rumors and gossip if not given a chance to be expressed. A vibrant culture keeps asking that problems be surfaced where they can be explored and worked through in a way that takes advantage of the wisdom of colleagues.

Here is an example of Gallwey’s clearing question being used in an organizational setting:

What keeps you up at night? What’s going on in your unit, the college, the university (or beyond) that you are curious, wondering, concerned, or upset about?

From an organizational perspective, it is important to continually give people permission to “clear”—to ask about anything. Think about it this way: given a void in information, people will make something up to fill the void. Transparency can never be achieved unless people have the permission and safety to ask about everything. Without this freedom, they will be left to make up their own interpretations and stories.

People worry and anything you can do to provide clarity is beneficial.

Here are some ways to use clearing every day.

  1. Begin meetings with this question: Is there anything that anyone needs to say or ask before we begin?
  2. Establish this agreement with the people you supervise: You can ask me anything. So if you are curious or wondering or concerned, please ask and I’ll tell you the truth.
  3. Parent-teacher conferences might begin like this: I’d love to start by just answering all of your questions. You can ask me anything and you can tell me anything you want me to know.
  4. Wouldn’t it be great if your family doctor said, Please don’t let me leave until you have asked all of your questions, no matter how small.
  5. At home, rather than suppressing your worries, you might say: You know, I’m not quite myself today. This is what is messing with my mind.

This is one of my favorite stories about the power of clearing. I was coaching a baseball team of thirteen- to fifteen-year-old boys when I first heard Tim talk about using this question to clear people before a presentation or test or competition. I decided to try it on the boys. The first couple of times, I didn’t get a single response. The third time was different.

Me: OK, boys, anything you want to ask about or are worried about?

Catcher: Can I play center field?

Me: Talk to me—why are you asking?

Catcher: My dad is here, and he will stand behind the screen and yell at me after every pitch, and after about three innings, I’ll start crying.

Me: I’ll ask your dad to sit by me.

Catcher: He won’t.

Me: We’ll see.

Alas, his dad would not relent, figuring that I would not stand my ground because his kid was by far the best player and we needed him to be catching in order to win. His son played center field.

The next game, a small kid on the team asked if I would promise not to ask him to bunt during the game. I agreed after he promised to work on bunting during practice next week. He was relieved. About the seventh inning, he dropped down a perfect bunt. When he came to the dugout, I asked him why he bunted. “It just seemed like the right thing to do.”

Giving people an opportunity to share whatever they are thinking gives them a chance to clear their minds so they can be at their best.

“Your head is a bad neighborhood. Don’t go there alone.”

—Mary Karr, American poet