We live in an age of increasing distraction.
Experts and gurus caution us to turn off distractions and focus like a laser to get things done.
Heck, even I’ve said similar things.
However, a growing body of psychological research is suggesting the story isn’t so simple. Improving concentration on a particular task might not be as straightforward as turning off the ringer on your phone or closing all your open tabs in Chrome.
Mind wandering, or the practice of letting your mind wander to other thoughts while you’re working on the task in front of you, is fast becoming recognized as a key component to improve concentration and increase productivity.
But how can daydreaming help you get things done and get better results?
Mind Wandering is Mind Management
David Kadavy, designer and author of Design for Hackers, said the following about time management:
Productivity is less about time management than it is about mind management.
— David Kadavy (@kadavy) May 1, 2012
Kadavy makes a great point. Time is time. You can’t really do anything to affect its march.
But your mental approach to time can change. That’s part of the reason we concentrate on finding effective time management strategies like finding your peak productivity times and applying the Pareto Principle to your task list.
Mind wandering is a powerful tool for mind management. But probably not in the way you think.
Yes, letting your mind wander is a great way to give your brain a break. But there’s an increasing consensus among cognitive neuroscientists and psychologists that mind wandering is also a key way to improve brain functioning.
Mind Wandering Improves Working Memory
Working memory is your capacity to store information at any given time. To use a computer analogy, your working memory is your brain’s RAM and your regular memory is the hard drive. Your RAM stores the info you need for what you’re working on at the moment. Your hard drive is your deep storage that contains everything else.
Having a larger working memory (more RAM) allows you to perform more complex tasks because you can juggle more information at once. It also lets you put more brainpower behind an activity to be more effective.
Working memory also has an interesting relationship to mind wandering.
Researchers have discovered that people with larger working memories are also more distracted, even if they’re more effective than test subjects with less working memory. Because their brain’s RAM can hold more data, they tend to fill it up to capacity–even if that means letting their minds wander to other thoughts.
I’m reminded of the scene in The Social Network when Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg character tells the lawyer who is suing him that he’s giving the lawyer only the bare minimum amount of attention that he deserves. The rest of his attention is back at Facebook’s offices.
Mind wandering isn’t necessarily something to be shunned. It could just be a sign that you have a bigger working memory than the more focused (but less agile) brains around you.
On the other hand, another psychological study suggests greater working memory is great for analysis, but not so great for creativity. So it helps to know what kind of problem you’re trying to solve before you set your mind wandering.
Mind Wandering Improves Problem-Solving
Mind wandering, zoning out, spacing out, daydreaming. Whatever you want to call it, this special state of the mind hasn’t always gotten the respect it deserves.
Mind wandering has also been credited for putting your brain into an “associative” mode where you create connections between ideas and concepts that you might not have recognized previously.
A 2006 research study demonstrated that people had an easier time solving a complex problem if they engaged in “unconscious thought” beforehand.
Not too bad for an activity that used to get no respect!
4 Ways to Improve Concentration Through Purposeful Mind Wandering
Human beings are interesting creatures because a large part of our days are spent simulating the future. We are “tomorrow people” in a very literal sense. This simulating behavior is commonly known as daydreaming. While daydreaming in school used to get you in trouble, I want you to purposefully let your mind wander to your dreams, hopes, and aspirations. Daydreaming is a double whammy: it will increase your mental agility and your well-being, according to an article in Perspectives on Psychological Science.
- Perform uncomplicated tasks.
Know how you zone out in the shower or washing dishes? Oftentimes if the activity in front of you isn’t mentally taxing, your brain will automatically go off to that special place. Instead of rushing all your chores, try to treat them as opportunities for mental growth instead.
Mind wandering and meditation might seem like opposite forces when you think about it. How can you empty your mind if your thoughts are flitting from subject to subject? But I find that mind wandering on the way to empty-mindedness is how my brain prefers to meditate anyway. Embrace it.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself.
Most of all, recognize that this mystical “laser focus” that entrepreneurs and authors keep talking about is largely a myth. Your brain is a factory for making connections between ideas, beliefs, and concepts. Your mind is built to wander! So don’t be too hard on yourself if you are feeling unfocused. Instead, be open to the new ideas that might come forth.
Image by ShuttrKing|KT.