How to use mind-wandering to boost your productivity

By Parisa Hashempour

Published 28 July 2020

Whether we’re working towards a deadline, keeping our eyes on the road or staying tuned-in to an important meeting, it’s often surprisingly difficult to tame the flow of task-unrelated thoughts running through our minds.

A lot of us discover quite early on, that we’ve got a great capacity for creating elaborate imaginary scenarios. We can often end up completely absorbed in them, no matter how important our current task at hand. 

When it comes to both the mundane and attention-demanding activities, nobody is immune to the phenomenon of the wandering mind. Many of us consider them an intrusive distraction. They get in the way of productivity and concentration.

It may seem strange that the brain wanders so easily, but recent investigations have uncovered that thinking about your Aunt Mildred during your annual review may not be such a cognitive oddity after all. It could in fact serve a clear psychological purpose.

Why does my mind wander? And what are the benefits?

Understanding the benefits of mind-wandering may help us to use it to our advantage and think differently the next time our imagination decides to give Hollywood a run for its money.

The part of the brain that is active during mind-wandering is what neuroscientists call the default mode network: the default state your brain finds itself in when not involved in a specific task. This state is instrumental to constituting your notion of “self”, thinking about others and remembering the past or considering the future. So, no matter how unwelcome it is during a conference or when writing an essay, mind-wandering is in fact a very useful activity from an adaptive standpoint.

Through imagining and visualization, it could help you remember to write an important email, imagine how you can impress your crush or plan your next meal: all of which are useful for your health, social well-being or even (on a much bigger scale), your survival.

How to harness the power of mind-wandering

Here are a few ways you can turn some distracting aspects of mind-wandering into productivity-enhancing techniques.

  • Envisage your future

Mind-wandering often revolves around thinking about potential future events. If you find yourself constantly thinking about an upcoming presentation in the midst of working on something else, more ideas might come to you than when you’re actively preparing for it.

Alternatively, you may envision various cases of what could go wrong (or well) in the future. In this way, your wandering thoughts could make you better prepared for all the alternative, possible outcomes that life may throw at you.

Try to accept whatever your mind is telling you, take notes if incoming thoughts are useful, and if you find yourself distracted when the time comes to prepare for your presentation, at least you’ll have some preparation behind you!

  • Enhance your creativity

We’ve all experienced moments of unconscious, random thought associations. That’s because the human brain often uses analogical reasoning to make sense of the world using structural or conceptual similarities.

If scientists are able to draw conclusions on crowd-behavior in humans by observing bee hives, it is because reasoning by analogy can provide illuminating and original insight into a wide variety of topics. Why not embrace the enhanced creativity that could result from mind-wandering?

When random, exciting ideas jump into your mind, make a note of them. You could try discussing them with a friend or partner later on, and see if any tangible projects could result from them. 

  • Develop your critical thinking skills

When a thought occurs to you by simply “popping” into your mind irrelevant of the task that you are engaged in, it is stripped from its usual surrounding bias and connotations. This increases your critical distance from it.

Becoming more objective about various issues can help you develop your critical skills and approach situations from multiple perspectives, regardless of your own opinion. Archimedes and Newton are prime examples of the fact that the best ideas can come when you least expect them!

How to stop overthinking

There’s a difference between mind wandering and overthinking. If you think your wandering mind is getting in the way of your health and your happiness and you find it frequently jumping from A to Z throughout the work-day, this can be distressing. It can also be completely anti-productive, getting in the way of your work day.

So how do you make yourself stop overthinking? The science says, Meditation. Meditating on a regular basis can help you ground your thoughts in the present moment by reducing the activity of the default mode network. Meditation can be very challenging, particularly during the early days of your practice when everything surrounding you seems more interesting than simply trying to channel your mind.

But stay with it because lapses in attention notably decrease as you increase the frequency of your practice. Did you know that meditation helps you reduce brain activity associated with mind-wandering and anxiety and leads to higher happiness levels? Check out Virtuagym’s Stronger Together offering , home to meditation sessions in multiple languages.

Parisa Hashempour

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