Josh Davis Ph.D.

Your Mental Toolkit

How Zoning Out Benefits Your Present and Your Future

... and why you should never feel guilty about taking a break again.

Posted Jul 14, 2015

racorn/Shutterstock
Source: racorn/Shutterstock

Thanks to our smartphones, tablets, laptops, and other devices, there is no longer a technological barrier reason to our working every minute of every day. In principle, that should help us get more useful work done—we can use every minute for maximal efficiency. But while our devices make us more productive in some ways, they can actually harm our productivity because they interfere with our mind-wandering, also known as daydreaming.

When we turn to our devices every time we get bored or find a break in the flow of work, we keep ourselves processing new information. Being always "on” like this can make us less productive because it can block the useful brain processes that occur when we let our minds wander. Neuroscience and psychological research show that mind-wandering facilitates creativity, planning, and putting off immediate desires in favor of future rewards. Each of these can be important for working effectively—and not many other things we do have such a broad impact.

For example, research published in the journal Psychological Science shows that we engage in what researchers call “creative incubation” during mind-wandering. If we’re facing a challenge that needs some new ideas, we are more likely to find good solutions if we let our minds wander and then come back to the challenge. When we mentally drift to a new topic, our brains continue sorting out the tough challenge in the background. Tracking a lot of new information can interfere with that background mental work, limiting mind-wandering and blocking the incubation that leads to creative solutions.

Mind-wandering is also important for planning ahead. Researchers have found that what minds primarily sort out when left to wander is plans for our own future. Imagine you’re working hard on landing new business. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day necessities of making calls, writing proposals, and so on, to the exclusion of planning what you will need to do to build a sustaining stream of clients. We often complain that we just don’t have the time for that longer-term view. What we may not realize is that it is not just an issue of setting aside time to focus on planning. When we remain constantly focused on work, we can block the processing that would facilitate planning our lives.

Similarly, researchers in Germany have shown that mind-wandering helps with the ever-important challenge of holding out for something better in the future, rather than giving in to immediate desires. Suppose you’ve been working for months on landing a new client and they finally make an offer to work together, but at a low price. It can be tempting to jump at whatever they offer, just wanting something to show for all the work you’ve already put in. But doing so would keep you from holding out just a little longer for a deal that would really make it worth your while. During mind-wandering, you are capable of connecting with your longer-term goals and discovering new ways to think about these kinds of situations.

Unless we turn off the information faucet of our devices, mos­­­­t of the information we take in just goes down the drain. I’m not suggesting we stop using our devices, but we should put them down from time to time, or leave them out of the room during a work session. That way, when we lose focus, we are more likely to mind-wander than to get sucked into handheld distractions.

If your mind is trying to wander, let it. Help it go to a new topic, but one that won’t need too much mental effort. Don’t check your favorite website or your email. Instead, allow the background processing that mind-wandering affords so you can get back to work and be more effective. Mind-wandering doesn’t need to take very long. You may be refreshed in a few minutes.

Here are some steps you can take to mind-wander:

  • The next time you find it hard to concentrate, walk to the window and think about the people or cars going by for a few minutes, until you get bored.
  • Close your eyes for a few minutes and notice the sounds in the room.
  • People used to take cigarette breaks. But you can still step outside for a couple minutes without a cigarette—just leave your phone inside.
'ResoluteSupportMedia/flickr.com'
Source: 'ResoluteSupportMedia/flickr.com'

To be effective, minds need opportunities to wander. Our devices make that hard. But with a few small changes, we can learn to help our minds help us be more productive.

This post was originally published in Harvard Business Review

@joshdavisphd  is the author of the book, Two Awesome Hours: Science-Based Strategies to Harness Your Best Time and Get Your Most Important Work Done (HarperOne).

More Posts