The Solution to Your Mind Wandering Problem
Research shows how you can keep your focus.
Posted January 30, 2017
I was in my college library reading about the downsides of mind-wandering. My mind began to wander. I drifted to thoughts about upcoming assignments, weekend plans, and pending summer internship applications. Suddenly, I realized I was experiencing the very issue I was learning about.
We often have a hard time getting out of our own heads and being present in the moment. Research suggests mind-wandering may be detrimental to our happiness. Moreover, studies show it also has harms on our concentration, memory, and even our ability to read!
Luckily, there are ways to get out of our minds and return to Earth. One solution is to savor the moment. In a study on happiness, researchers found that savoring good feelings boosts the emotional impact of positive events. People who savored good moments were happier than those who did not.
But what good is savoring good feelings if we’re too busy thinking about other things to notice them? Many of us have a difficult time with mindfulness, defined by author Jon Kabat-Zinn as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Even when we enjoy the present moment, we think about other things.
Enter meditation. Some people are skeptical of meditation. Others think people like them aren’t the type to practice it. They think meditation is for spiritual people or people who are more enlightened than them. Some people say they’d like to do it but don’t have time. I used to include myself in this category.
One such skeptic wrote about his experiences and shared how meditation changed him. Scott Barry Kaufman, a scientist who once referred to mindfulness proponents as “zombies” enrolled in a mindfulness course. He meditated 40 minutes every single day for 8 weeks. He unplugged from social media, read books on spirituality, and learned about mindfulness firsthand. Kaufman found that mindfulness meditation reduced his criticism of himself and led him to think more broadly about his personal emotions and experiences. It made him become more self-compassionate.
Self-compassion has several benefits. Research suggests that self-compassion heightens creativity, originality, and moves us away from being self-focused and self-critical. Leaving our minds helps to stimulate the creative process.
While most of us do not have 8 weeks to attend a mindfulness course, we can set aside 10 minutes a day. Over the last week, I spent a few minutes each day meditating. It was not easy. I found it difficult to let go of pressing concerns. Interestingly, I found the same thoughts bubble up to the surface. In our mental lives, the most pressing concerns seem to have a gravitational field, pulling us back to them when we mentally depart the current moment.
Yet after 3 or 4 minutes, I found it easier to focus on my breathing and escape the orbit of my usual concerns. I found that while the first day was especially challenging, each subsequent day became easier. This echoes the claims from Emma Seppälä’s book, The Happiness Track. She states that the more we practice being in the moment, the easier it becomes. This is true for practicing meditation. Once you make it a part of your daily routine, you’ll find yourself looking forward to it.
Seppälä’s book also shares research demonstrating that experienced meditators have less activity in brain regions associated with mind-wandering. I am not an experienced meditator. Yet over the last week I have noticed my attention span lengthen. I have even made a habit of putting my phone out of sight when I am focused on work. Like many people, I have a hard time not looking at my phone every ten minutes when I am working on something.
Besides setting aside the time to meditate, it can also be difficult to be alone with our thoughts without some sort of guidance. Fortunately, there are many apps and meditation channels on YouTube. I am particularly fond of Andrew Johnson’s guided meditation video.
Interestingly, research also suggests that mind-wandering has benefits. Scientists have shown that when people’s minds wander, they often think about the future. Mentally travelling to the future has benefits for planning, considering different outlooks, and generating creative solutions. This doesn’t mean you should distract yourself more with your phone. Rather, it can sometimes be fruitful to let your mind wander and see where it leads you.
If you want to be happier, less distracted, and more focused, try meditation. You may find it challenging to set aside a few minutes each day. But by practicing meditation as part of your daily routine, you will experience the benefits of heightened productivity and reduced stress. Next time, instead of spending 5 minutes surfing Facebook, try 5 minutes checking in with your well-being.
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Brown, K. W., Ryan, R. M., & Creswell, J. D. (2007). Mindfulness: Theoretical foundations and evidence for its salutary effects. Psychological inquiry, 18(4), 211-237.
Franklin, M. S., Mooneyham, B. W., Baird, B., & Schooler, J. W. (2014). Thinking one thing, saying another: The behavioral correlates of mind-wandering while reading aloud. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 21(1), 205-210.
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Kaufman, S.B. A Skeptical Scientist Learns How to Meditate. Greater Good Science Center.
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Seppala, E. (2016). The Happiness Track.