Find the Time for a Wandering Mind

Mindfulness helps us meditate, focus, and rid ourselves of stress and anxiety. But at what cost? Focus is an in demand commodity today, we all want it, if only our easily distracted minds would play ball (or maybe that’s the problem). As you might know by now, we get distracted at rather inconvenient times—during exams, at work, in the middle of a conversation. Up to 50% of our day is spent mind-wandering, and most evidence points to it making us unhappy, so mindfulness is here to train our focus and make us aware of the moment our brains falter, so that we can pivot back.

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Many people think mind-wandering is associated with lazy people, always with their heads in the clouds. When I mentioned that we mind wander 50% of the time, I bet for many people the reaction was along the lines of “What a waste.” “How can I lower it?” “Why can’t I focus all the time?” At some point we should consider the reasons for it—why did our brains evolve to wander that much? Surely it has its benefits if such a large portion of time is devoted to it.

Our brains most often distract us with the things it (or we) believe to be important—Job interviews, emails, fantasy football. A big problem in our ability to focus is the importance we’re placing on things that really shouldn’t or needn’t be stressed out over. In the distant past we placed importance on finding food and avoiding danger, ‘real’ important things. This is made all the more difficult when we’re connected to too many devices—we can check Facebook and emails anytime, so we’re always thinking about it, even on holiday. We’re always being evaluated, we’re busy fighting to be seen as attractive to potential partners, worthy of promotions to our employers, and full of potential to hopeful employers; now we’re stressed out about our appearance (both offline and on), how much we know, and how we compare to others.

Stress overload, we weren’t built to deal with all of this, at least not all the time.

In comes mindfulness, teaching us to be in the moment, aware of the positive and negative thoughts that come into our head, and to remain focused on the present non-judgmentally. The benefits are great, I cannot and will not argue against mindfulness, I think it’s a great way to clear your mind and fight off unwanted thoughts to improve attention—but only when you need it.

Mind-wandering gets a bad rap because the benefits are more hidden, while the negatives hang on it’s sleeves. Studies show it makes us unhappy, and there’s the obvious fact we get distracted from other tasks. But there are positives too, it helps to form stronger memories, make future plans, and we’re at our most creative when we’re mind-wandering.

Arriving home from the store without the eggs that necessitated the trip is a mere annoyance when weighed against coming to a decision to ask for a raise, leave a job, or go back to school. — Scott Barry Kaufman

Let’s kill the bad points then—We get distracted because too many things weigh on our mind, and we’re left unhappy because those things are too negative.

You’re in class and your mind takes you to your chores after school—“I don’t like them and I’m tired.” You’re on holiday and you’re wondering who got the promotion back at work—“should I check my emails? I bet it was Bret, I never liked him.” You’re in bed and you’re thinking about work tomorrow—“Could I have done more today? What do I need to do in the morning? Why can’t I sleep?”

The issue is not that mind-wandering is bad, it’s that we’ve set it up to fail by giving importance to so many things that, while not irrelevant, are not worthy of the stress they cause us.

The solution? Let your mind wander when it’s appropriate, but use Positive Constructive Daydreaming.

Set some time aside to practice mindfulness, so that you learn to notice when your mind goes astray and can pull it back, which will improve your ability to focus. Then when it’s important to pay attention, you’ll be able to keep your focus longer, by being more attuned to the minds wandering.

I find a great time to use mindfulness is when I’m trying to get to sleep, it prevents thoughts about the upcoming day or reflections on what I did today from intruding, letting me get to sleep peacefully.

But, if the task’s not important or doesn’t require all your attention—such as when you’re in the shower, washing the dishes, or taking a walk; let your mind wander—but push it in the right direction.

Positive constructive daydreaming is one of three types of daydreaming. It’s associated with playful, vivid, wishful thoughts, and is free from psychological conflict.

The other two types of daydreaming are Guilty-dysphoric daydreaming—driven by a combination of ambitiousness, anguishing fantasies of heroism, failure, and aggression; and poor attentional control—typical of the anxious, the distractible, and those having difficulties concentrating, characterized by the inability to concentrate on either the ongoing thought or the external task.

Daydreaming is volitional, you can choose to do it. You can practice positive constructive daydreaming when it suits you, and become more adept at it. You can also learn to notice the change between outside and inside thought streams, allowing to to realize sooner that you’ve gone off track and can more easily adjust yourself, no matter which mode you’re in.

If 50% has been the split for mind-wandering in the past, then it should stay that way; rather than push the percentage in favor of one or the other, we should be learning to do both more effectively. We can do that by being mindful when we need to focus on an outside task, and using positive constructive daydreaming when going inside.

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