Mind wandering is a universal experience. Everyone does it on a daily basis. You’re trying to study for a test when you start thinking about something your professor said. This leads you to think about a movie you saw last night, and then you’re thinking about your favorite band; now, for some reason, you’re remembering a fun birthday party you had when you were six. Some people see this as a negative habit that should be controlled, and others take pleasure in letting their minds wander because they believe it increases their creativity.
Today, however, people’s lives are filled with endless distractions and stimulation that demand limited focus. This means that more and more often, people find themselves becoming frustrated when their thoughts drift off in the middle of trying to concentrate. Another side effect of a noisy environment is overstimulation. Everyone is working, checking social media, communicating, watching TV, listening to podcasts and so on throughout their waking hours, giving their minds very little time to sit back and take the time to process new information.
People are constantly taking in new information but giving themselves little time to think about it. This means that the majority of the information that people take in is not being used, and it is quickly forgotten.
Cal Newport, an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University and author of “Deep Work,” puts it this way: “If you’re only ever exposing yourself to interesting information, if you’re only ever exposing yourself to the stimuli, but not taking the time to actually think about it — to process it, to look at it from different angles, to try to run it against other paradigms or structures you have in your current mental schema — if you don’t do that work of just being alone with your own thoughts, you’re probably extracting just a small fraction of the potential value.”
Therefore, mind wandering is necessary for people to process the information they take in throughout the day, so they can use that information to their benefit by coming up with new revelations, connections and conclusions. Mind wandering is by no means a new phenomenon — researchers have found that humans have been experiencing mind wandering for more than two thousand years. Therefore, we must accept mind wandering as a part of life. As long as you are alive, your mind will wander.
Studies have found that people spend up to 50% of their waking hours thinking about things unrelated to their current activity. One of the reasons for this is because focused thinking requires a lot of mental effort; thus, it would be impossible to maintain this level of focus over a long period of time. Mind wandering is therefore a much-needed break from extended periods of focus. And, if directed right, it can be used to improve that focus to better achieve your goals.
Nowadays, staying focused on one task for a prolonged period of time is becoming a coveted skill. You’ve only spent 10 minutes on your essay and you’re already thinking about checking social media. You’re trying to read a book and find that you can’t focus on a sentence for long enough.
One of the main reasons that people often find their minds drifting off from the task at hand is because the outcome of the task is perceived as being of low value or is far ahead in the future. For example, most people find they can’t focus enough to read a book. This is most likely because the perceived outcome and satisfaction — finishing the book — is seen as being in the distant future, a week from then, or even farther away. Thus, your brain — without your conscious consent — decides that it would be better to stop and do something with a quicker outcome, or it wanders off and thinks about something more pressing.
The good news is that this can be undone. Once you understand the art of mind wandering, you can use it to your advantage. Being aware of the drifting of your mind and knowing when to let it wander could help enhance your focus and improve your creativity — two important skills for your success and wellbeing.
Mind wandering plays an important role in creativity. In one study, participants were given a test called the Unusual Uses Task, which asked them to think up unique uses for everyday items such as a paperclip or a newspaper. In between doing this activity, participants either let their mind wander while doing an undemanding task or did a demanding task that required all their focus. The participants who practiced mind wandering in between sessions improved their performance on the Unusual Uses Task much more than the other groups. “The findings reported here provide arguably the most direct evidence to date that conditions that favor mind-wandering also enhance creativity,” wrote the test’s creators.
Another study found that mind wandering can improve goal setting. Participants in this study were asked to do an undemanding task and to report on what they were thinking about as their brains were scanned with fMRI. Afterward, they wrote for 15 minutes about their personal goals or TV programs. Then they repeated both tasks again.
The researchers and analyzers found that the participants whose minds wandered while doing their undemanding tasks came up with higher quality goal descriptions in the second session. The fMRI also revealed that the areas of their brains involved in goal setting showed greater connectivity as the experiment progressed.
Thus, mind wandering is not only an essential cognitive process but a valuable tool in making connections, brainstorming ideas, reviewing information and so much more. Letting your mind wander in between tasks is the best way to ensure that your focus will be at its best.
The best way to use mind wandering to your advantage is to set aside time during the day to do so. If you leave your mind to try and find mental breaks throughout the day on its own, you will most likely find your thoughts drifting off in the midst of trying to focus. Any activity that doesn’t require much focus is good for this, including taking a walk, going on a drive or cooking something easy.
When you want to focus, make sure to remove all distractions. Put your phone on silent. If possible, place it somewhere where you can’t reach it so you won’t have the option to check anything unrelated to your current task. Turn off the TV and any disruptive music. During your times of focus, you need to be completely focused. Likewise, be sure not to fill those times of mind wandering with the same distractions.
Mind wandering does not have to be a source of frustration. Once you learn to balance the periods of wandering and focus that takes place in your mind, you will find that it is much easier to concentrate than you thought, leaving you with a heightened ability to focus on the things you care about and to commit fully to your tasks.