Did you know that it is normal for your mind to wander approximately 47 percent of the time? This statistic is sourced from a study by Killingsworth and Gilbert who sampled 2,000 adults wherein they additionally reported that when their mind wandered, they felt less happy.
Mental Time Travel
Many of us, including myself are fascinated by the concept of time travel. We believe it is beyond our current technological capability, but the reality is that our mind is an expert time traveler. Within a nanosecond, it can transport us mentally into the past and then, just as quickly, launch our thoughts into the future.
And it often tends to skip right passed the present moment.
So, we move from ruminating about the past and either feeling regret or longing for what was to feeling anxious or wishing for the future to arrive so that we could experience what we wish would happen.
We don’t seem to be able to live in the moment for long without doing this mental mind-time travel.
When You're Stressed
Now, I want you to think about feeling stressed. Perhaps that isn’t a big stretch for you as you’re reading this post.
When you’re stressed, mind wandering increases by 2 to 3 times! What can mind wandering do when you’re under stress? Your productivity and attention span becomes significantly compromised. Too much stress or chronic stress is not helpful and will stimulate the release of hormones like noradrenaline which fixes to receptors in our cognitive control circuits. When noradrenaline is released, it can make it so much more difficult for us to control our mind wandering.
Like everything I write about and train on, we can build our attentional control. We need to practice paying attention and being mindful. It really helps to be intentional about paying attention.
Some neuroscientists believe that mind wandering is a way for our brain to process everything that we’re constantly taking in. I’ve included a link to a short video called A Brief Introduction to the Default Mode Network that explains the mind wandering process.
As mentioned in the video, there is a lot of debate about what really happens in the brain when our mind wanders. Neuroscientists do know the parts of the brain that are engaged when we unconsciously move into mind wandering mode or what is called the default mode network. And, yes, we do use 100% of our brain (not just 10%)!
Mind wandering can be bad for you and Dr. Tracey Marks offers this terrific called, Why Mind Wandering is Bad for You and How to Stop It. Another fascinating video on the topic is by Dr. Amishi Jha. In this 18-minute video called How to Tame Your Wandering Mind, you'll learn about her studies on how we pay attention and how our brain decides what is important and where to focus.
Tips to Reduce Mind Wandering
When you do a chore or go for a walk, bring your attention to exactly what it is that you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. When you recognize that your mind is wandering, come back to the exercise of identifying what you can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch.
The more you practice a simple mindfulness exercise like this, the more it will become second nature and you’ll build your mental muscles through the magic of neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to form and recognize synaptic connections especially in response to learning).
You can train your brain and grow new neurons, but I digress or is it just that my mind has been wandering?
Jon Kabat Zinn has done a great deal of work about mindfulness. I’ve linked to a helpful article by Better Help that covers Jon Kabat Zinn’s mindfulness work…if that is a rabbit hole you’d like to explore.
Meditate, the Guided Way
As a meditation teacher, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the power of meditation. Give this a try too and if you’re new to it or want some help through guided meditations, I invite you to explore the free app called InsightTimer.com. One of my favourite meditation teachers, DavidJi offers many guided meditations on this app. Also, Sarah Blondin is a fabulous meditation teacher. She offers a gorgeous meditation series called Live Awake.
Make Sleep A Priority
There are lots of reasons to avoid getting into a sleep deficit and I’m quick to share the key reasons even though it is an area of my personal healthcare regime where I struggle the most.
We want to avoid mild cognitive dysfunction, which is something that can happen easily if you have poor sleep hygiene. Basically, when you’re tired, it is more difficult to resist temptation and avoid unhealthy adrenaline boosters like too much caffeine. Also, when we’re sleep deprived, mind wandering increased too and our mental performance or cognitive functioning is compromised and therefore we experience mild cognitive dysfunction.
If You Doodle, Be Intentional
Are you someone who doodles in meetings or virtual calls? If so, try doodling about the topic being discussed which will allow you to focus more on the actual topic. You may be surprised at how much your doodling helped you focus and remember while making the most out of a boring meeting.
I use the Pomodoro Technique to help me avoid procrastination and be more productive. I also use my time windows to bribe myself with a little snack or break outside on my patio.
Try a little self-bribery and see if it does help you to stay focused for longer bursts of time.
Let’s Pause Here
I bet your mind is wandering already, so let’s pause here. I’ll be writing more on this topic in the months ahead and invite you to please stay tuned.
Here's to Paying Attention
I wish you great success with trying out these tips and finding your own ways to build your attentional focus muscles.
Believe in the power of your brain’s neuroplasticity.
You can change the way you think as well as where and for how long you’re able to pay attention to the present moment. Doing so has the potential to help you feel less stressed and happier.