Mastering your attention 3/4 (How to Manage Your Mind Wandering)

Sometimes your voluntary and involuntary attentional modes need some R&R, and the cognitive equivalent of the USO is a good old-fashioned mind wandering session.

While mind wandering (or daydreaming) can boost creativity and help us untangle unresolved problems, it can also distract us at inopportune times and lead us to ruminate on negative thoughts and emotions. Thus while daydreaming may seem the ultimate in creative spontaneity, to maximize its benefits and minimize its drawbacks, it’s best to actively manage your mind wandering sessions:

Intentionally set a time to let your mind wander. Instead of limiting your daydreaming to those few abbreviated pockets between when your mind unintentionally drifts away from the task at hand and when you yank it back to work, find times throughout your day where you deliberately give your brain permission to wander at will. Some great thinkers and leaders have made it a habit to block out chunks in their day where they don’t do anything except let their mind freely ramble.

Besides blocking off specific time in your schedule for mind wandering, give your brain permission to wander when you’re doing low-cognition activities like cleaning, whittling, or showering. A bit of habitual stimulation really seems to free the mind up to receive inspiration. If you find yourself stuck on a problem, instead of sitting there trying to force the solution from your cranium, take a break and the answer may very well come to you in the shower.

Decide what kind of mind wandering session you want to have. When we daydream, our mind has a tendency to drift towards negative thoughts and emotions. It does this in order to direct our attention to unresolved problems in our lives. This can be beneficial, so it’s good to intentionally set aside times when you give yourself permission to be a worrywart. Make a list of everything that you’re worried about. Next to each worry, write down a “next step” – something tangible you can do, however small, to begin resolving that issue. If there’s truly nothing you can do about something for the time being, make a conscious note of that and imagine tabling the issue for another session.

Sometimes though, we don’t want our cognitive rambles to drift over to the dark side and be such a downer. Instead, we’re hoping our daydreams can generate a bit of inspiration or creativity. In that case, actively focus on positive thoughts as your mind wanders. If it starts to drift towards more negative things, nudge it back on course. It may help to keep a mental drawer of positive subject file folders you can leaf through – fond childhood memories, things you love about your girlfriend, the last vacation you took, and so on.

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