We’ve all been there: You’re supposed to be working on a report, or you’re watching someone give a PowerPoint presentation, and your mind starts to wander. You find yourself thinking about a conversation you had last night with your friend, your weekend plans, or a television show you watched last week. Then, you have to snap yourself back to the present to focus on the task in front of you.
Mind wandering is a little different from distraction, because it is internally generated rather than a response to something in the environment. However, the two are related, because your brain is predicting the timing of events in the world. If you routinely check your email about every 12 minutes, then (at least when you’re sitting at your desk), your brain will generate “interrupts” from tasks you are performing to get you to think about checking your email.
There are some good reasons to want to stop your mind from wandering. Studies suggest that when you get off-task easily, it disrupts your productivity. It can make it harder to complete tasks. It may even decrease your overall level of happiness.
And there are things you can do. In particular, research by Jonathan Schooler and his colleagues suggests that mindfulness training can be helpful. Many mindfulness training techniques (like the one used in this research) focus both on the body and the mind. Body work encourages people to adopt an upright and calm posture. The mental elements of mindfulness encourage people to identify the sources of their thoughts.
Are they thoughts that arise spontaneously, or are they the product of ruminating about a particular issue? The mental element also encourages people to recognize that anxiety-provoking thoughts about the past are just thoughts and not a signal that the past needs to be worried about.
Mindfulness training can decrease one’s tendency for mind wandering, by helping you to recognize when you are experiencing distracting thoughts. That can help you to reorient yourself back to the present and to re-engage with a task.
That said, mind wandering is not all bad. In particular, when you are working on a task that requires some creativity, mind wandering might actually be beneficial. Getting a stroke of insight involves being reminded of something that will help you to solve a problem in a new way. If you’re not currently being reminded of anything useful, then continuing to think about the problem in the same way will not lead you to think about anything new. As a result, you are unlikely to break out of the rut you are in with that problem.
If you allow your mind to wander, two things happen: one is that your mind may end up wandering to something that will help you to solve the problem; the other is that when you do finally bring yourself back to the problem, you are likely to frame it in a slightly different way than you did when you started working on the problem, and that gives you an opportunity to be reminded of something else you know about that might lead to a creative insight.
This work suggests that most of the mundane work you do will benefit from a little mindfulness training. If you keep your mind from wandering, you’ll be able to check off a number of the items on your to-do list. But, when you’re stuck on a problem and need that lightning strike of creativity, letting your mind wander might be just what you need.