It happens all the time: we’re working away on something we have to get done, and suddenly we realize that for quite some time we’ve been lost in a daydream about something else entirely. We don’t know when our mind went off track, nor how long we’ve been meandering away from our task.
On average, our minds wander 50 percent of the time. The exact rate varies enormously. When Harvard researchers had 2,250 people report what they were doing and what they were thinking about at random points throughout their day, the doing-thinking gaps ranged widely.
But the biggest gap occurred during work, as mind-wandering is an epidemic on the job. Thankfully, we can take steps that will help us stay on task when it matters most. Here’s how:
1. Manage our temptations.
Many of the distractors that pull us away from what we’re working on are digital: tweets, emails, and the like. But now, several internet apps can help reduce the temptation to wander off. Google Chrome offers two free apps that do this: Nanny for Google, which blocks off websites we might be tempted to visit for a custom length of time, and StayFocusd, which limits the amount of time we can spend in our inbox, on Facebook, or wherever else we might be seduced away.
2. Monitor our mind and take second thoughts.
Noticing where our minds have gone – checking our twitter feed instead of working on that report – gives us the chance for a second thought: “my mind has wandered off again.” That very thought disengages our brain from where it has wandered and activates brain circuits that can help our attention get unstuck and return to the work at hand.
3. Practice a daily mindfulness session.
This mental exercise can be as simple as watching our breath, noticing when our mind has wandered off, letting go of the wandering thought, and bringing it back to our breath again. These movements of the mind are like a mental workout, the equivalent of repetitions in lifting free weights; every rep strengthens the muscle a bit more. In mindfulness, the brain’s circuits get stronger for noticing when our mind has wandered, letting go, and returning to our chosen focus. And that’s just what we need to stay on task.
- Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence and Focus
Mindful will return in September with their next guest post. In the meantime, visit mindful.org for feature articles or to subscribe to the magazine in print or digital format.