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Ask yourself these four questions when your mind starts to wander

These are the most common sources of intrusive thoughts, and what you can do to rein them in.

Ask yourself these four questions when your mind starts to wander
[Animation: Karl Fredrickson/Unsplash; Kurdistann/Wikimedia Commons; Pixabay/Pexels]

The most common way to measure productivity on a daily basis is by how much you can cross off your to-do list (or at least how much progress you make on the items on that list). From that standpoint, any time you spend at work that doesn’t allow you to tick off something on the list is unproductive time.

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Of course, there are lots of activities you engage in that are productive in other ways. Meeting a colleague for coffee may not be productive today, but the relationship you create may pay dividends later. Likewise, attending a training seminar may give you knowledge that will expand your skills.

But there are some activities that never seem to be that productive–and chief among those is mind wandering. Just to be clear, mind wandering involves having thoughts that are not directly relevant to the task at hand. It can be a particular problem if the initial thoughts you have lead you far away from what you’re trying to do at the moment and occupy a lot of time.

If you want to stop your mind from wandering, you need to understand a bit more about where those thoughts are coming from. Here are four common sources of intrusive thoughts, and some things you can do about them.

Are you anxious?

Anxiety is a common reason why people think about things that are off-task. Some anxiety is focused on a particular event of concern (like a looming meeting with your boss or a visit to the dentist). Some anxiety is more generalized. At any given moment, roughly 1 in 5 people in the U.S. is suffering from clinical or near-clinical levels of anxiety and depression.

A typical symptom of anxiety is rumination (which comes from the word for animals chewing their cud). Rumination is a repeated cycle of thoughts related to the source of your anxiety. Your mind is fixed on something in the world you’re trying to avoid, and it becomes difficult for you to think about anything else.

What to do about it. In this case, one of your best bets is to write about what is bothering you. Take 20 minutes and write about your concern. For anxiety that has been bothering you for a while, do that several times over the course of a week or two. The process of writing about it may be emotionally difficult, but studies suggest that it will help you to feel better.

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Do you have an unfulfilled goal?

If there is something important that you are supposed to do and you haven’t done it, your brain keeps information related to that goal active as a way of making sure you achieve your goal. In some cases, this can be useful. For example, if you find yourself walking around needing to mail a bill, then your focus on the unfulfilled goal will help you to notice a post office as you drive by it.

In this case, there are two possibilities.

One is that the goal is something you can do something about. For example, you might have a report you need to finish for your boss. The report is going slowly, so you avoid working on it. But your brain drags you right back to the report when you’re trying to do something else.

What to do about it. In this case, stop fighting what needs to be done. Go out and make some progress on the important task that is hanging over your head. The best way to keep an open goal from driving your thoughts is to get it over with. If you have to, ask someone else for help with the task so that you can make progress.

The other possibility is that the open goal is something you can’t really do anything about right now. For example, you might be shopping for a car. You’re excited about buying it, but you won’t be able to get there until the weekend. So, for the rest of the week, you end up daydreaming about your purchase.

What to do about it. In that case, take a walk and let yourself think about the joy of the new purchase for a bit. For one thing, anticipation is a fun emotion, so let yourself enjoy the happy thoughts rather than feeling guilty about them. It might help to get some of those thoughts out of your system.

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If you find you’re still thinking about the upcoming joyous event, then do the same kind of writing exercise I mentioned for dealing with anxiety. After all, anxiety and anticipation are two sides of a coin. Anxiety reflects a negative thing you haven’t yet avoided. Anticipation comes from a positive thing you haven’t yet obtained.

But after you take a break and revel in the anticipation, you need to get back to work.

Is your environment distracting?

Sometimes the source of the thoughts comes from outside of yourself. In an open-office environment, for example, there are lots of things going around you that you can’t control. People are having phone conversations nearby. There is the sound of fingers tapping on computer keyboards. There are beeps and buzzes of electronic devices.

Even if you’re lucky enough to have a private office, there are potential distractions. For example, you might have a window with an interesting view. (Years ago, there was a new building being built across the street from my office, and there was always an opportunity to watch construction vehicles doing their work.)

What to do about it. In this case, you need to remove a few sources of distraction. You might need a white-noise machine to muffle unpredictable sounds around you. Maybe you need to keep the shade down on your office window every once in a while. Worst case, talk with your supervisor about ways to take at least a little time working somewhere with fewer distractions in order to protect some of your time for focused attention.

Are you tired?

Finally, your ability to focus your attention on a particular task is affected by the health of your brain. Probably the most important thing you can do to improve that health is to get regular sleep. I have written before about how a lack of sleep makes it harder to concentrate and think effectively.

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It is always tempting to stay at work an extra hour to finish up a task. And then you want to reward yourself when you get home by relaxing a bit, so you watch some television, play a video game, or do something else enjoyable. After all that, you have pushed your bedtime back an hour or more.

That sleep debt accumulates over time and increases the amount of time it takes to get through your workload, which then leads you to work long hours. And the cycle repeats.

What to do about it. You are better off leaving work at a reasonable hour and picking up with your work tasks the next day. That shortened workday gives you a chance to get the sleep you need. The paradox is that by being refreshed, you will get more done in less time.

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