One of my absolute best traits is a wandering mind. I’m not alone. A growing body of literature suggests that we take our mind away from the task at hand, about half our waking moments. Our brain moves backward or forward in time rather than just being in the moment.
Is a wandering mind good or bad? It depends.
THE FRIGHTFUL WANDERING MIND
If you are performing surgery, driving in heavy traffic, a juror in a trial, or working on a critical project at work, dropping in on the past or present isn’t helpful. You can really screw up—ultimately harming yourself or someone else. At a lesser level, we make errors and have difficulty making decisions.
Unfortunately, stress makes this tendency more powerful and frequent. We ruminate on what has happened to us and what might happen in the future. Usually, these random thoughts are negative, increasing stress and anxiety.
TAMING THE WANDERING MIND
According to the Mayo Clinic, you can tame the wandering mind with mindfulness exercises. They include:
- Pay attention. It’s hard to slow down and notice things in a busy world. Try to take the time to experience your environment with all of your senses — touch, sound, sight, smell and taste. For example, when you eat a favorite food, take the time to smell, taste and truly enjoy it.
- Live in the moment. Try to intentionally bring an open, accepting and discerning attention to everything you do. Find joy in simple pleasures.
- Accept yourself. Treat yourself the way you would treat a good friend.
- Focus on your breathing. When you have negative thoughts, try to sit down, take a deep breath and close your eyes. Focus on your breath as it moves in and out of your body. Sitting and breathing for even just a minute can help.
THE DELIGHTFUL WANDERING MIND
By now, I’m sure you’re beating up your mind, telling it to stay in line. But wait, there’s a time when you want it to wander. According to a 2017 metastudy, mind-wandering enhances creativity and may play a significant part in problem-solving and learning. Additionally, it can also have a positive effect on mood. The more creative you are, the more joy you can experience, and vice versa.
ENCOURAGING THE WANDERING MIND
According to the Washington Post, you can set your mind free:
Avoid multitasking. “Many people essentially celebrate multitasking itself. And so they might actually feel like they’re doing nothing if they only uni-task,” Dane said. When clients insist they’re too busy to do one thing at a time, he compares the results of uni-tasking to the results of exercise. Generally, exercise energizes us, even if we’re tired before we begin. Similarly, when we’re “in the midst of stormy real life,” stepping away and slowing down allows us to later “engage more thoughtfully and patiently and in a calm manner as we’re being bombarded by stimuli again.”
Put your phone down. While we know our phones make it hard, if not impossible, to focus fully on the task at hand, their frequent intrusions have another, less-talked-about downside: keeping our minds from drifting far and wide enough to be “awash in really rich, imaginative, depthful thinking,” Dane said.
Engage your hands. Mecking says doing “something that keeps your hands busy but not stressed out” can help you get in the right frame of mind. A repetitive task such as crocheting or weeding can work, as long as you’re not under pressure to complete it.
Let go of goals. Whatever you do, it can’t be goal-oriented. For example, running could be an excellent way to let your mind zone out if your intention is simply to feel good and get some exercise, Mecking says. On the other hand, if you’re doing a specific workout in preparation for a race and paying close attention to your watch and your effort level, running wouldn’t qualify.
Make a (gentle) commitment to the practice. While there’s no consensus on exactly how often and how frequently you should engage in the practice of mind-wandering, everyone I spoke to emphasized the importance of making it part of your daily routine — or at least trying to. According to Mecking, doing nothing shouldn’t be yet another stress-inducing obligation. “I don’t think there’s a way people can fail at doing nothing.”
WANDERING MIND CONFUSION
So, what’s a person to do? Take a lesson from Goldilocks: Not too much, not too little, but just right. Scan your body and make gentle tweaks.