Mind wandering. Six ways to maximize your focus

So you are seated down somewhere reading a book. Your mind is in another place yet your eyes are perusing through pages. You reach a point and you ask yourself whether whatever you have been reading really got into your brain.

Then you realize you got lost somewhere because you were reading with your mind wandering from place to place.

Worry not, I have been there too.  Actually, if you are still able to draw yourself back to what you were doing before your mind wandered, you only need less effort to curb mind wandering. There are people whose minds go from place to place and they never return to where they were.

For example, one can be writing a budget, then his mind wanders to the latest Marvel movie, then to Netflix. Until after a long time maybe a day, they remember that they have an unfinished budget to make. That is how severe it can get.

Mind wandering

An accurate mind wandering definition is when a person’s thoughts and attention unconsciously shift away from a task at hand to something unrelated. Mind-wandering is sometimes called, spontaneous thoughts, fantasy, zoning out, unrelated thoughts, perceptual decoupling hypothesis, or undirected thoughts.

It is important to note that you are not the only one facing this problem. Every adult does. Even children do. In fact, in adults, an average person’s mind wanders at least 47% of his wake day according to Matt Killingsworth’s track your happiness project.  

The problem with our minds wandering is that we fail to give 100% focus to the tasks at hand. The results we get in whatever we do are always proportional to how much we put in. With a wandering mind, it is hard to invest in 100% focus which precludes 100% results.

Causes of mind wandering.

Our minds wander because of causes that are grouped into two; external causes and internal causes.

External causes

External distractions can induce our minds to take trips and wander from place to place. You can be working on a task with intense focus and maximum attention then something outside of you distracts you. This breaks the intensity of your focus which makes you vulnerable to controlling your mind from thinking about other unrelated thoughts.

For example, you are sitting under a tree reading a book, a beautiful bird flies by. You look at how it flaps its beautiful wings and wonder how it freely floats in the air.

From there, your mind goes to the technology behind planes flying, then you remember the last time you took a flight to London, the flight reminds you of the dude aboard who kept looking at you. One thought leads to another until you realize that you are not focused on reading the book.

That is how external distractions cause mind wandering. They make your mind switch attention from the task at hand to another thought which leads to a chain of different thoughts.

Other external distractions may include; noise, strange random smells, other people, discomfort, etc. When you are in an uncomfortable place your mind will often wander to thoughts of having a comfortable one or to those things making you lose your comfort.

Internal distractions.

Lack of emotional attachment to the task at hand. I loved literature so much in high school. I was very passionate about it in that nothing would distract me in class. I had an intense emotional attachment to it.

It was different when I joined the chemistry class. It was damn boring. I had no emotions invested in it. My mind would often wander to the Oliver Twist novel instead of noticing the chemical reactions in experiments. From place to place it would wander.

Lack of emotional investment causes mind wandering

Notice people watching NBA, they are on their toes screaming with clenched fists waiting to raise their hands in celebrations of victory. They are emotionally invested in the game. 

Take the same people to watch golf or any other game they have no emotional inclination to. You will see them mind wandering from place to place.

When our inner emotions are not invested in the task at hand, we easily get bored and have our minds wandering to thoughts unrelated.

Other internal distractions that may cause mind wandering may include, hunger, heartbreaks, loneliness, pain, pending tasks, etc.

Symptoms of mind wandering

  • Inability to comprehend concepts when writing or reading. This is common with students and adults at work when they fail to comprehend instructions or a message because of their mind wandering. It is important to note that the issue in this case is mind wandering not being less intelligent.

  • Unhealthy sleeping habits. Often times one can have the mind wandering from place to place while in bed. This stops them from focusing on sleeping and rather get busy thinking.

  • Inability to focus. When you notice that you are often losing focus on the task at hand due to thoughts coming in and out of your mind, know that it is due to mind wandering.

  • Increased forgetfulness leading to loss of things. Have you ever put your car keys on the table so you can do something else only to have your mind wandering to other things. You forget the keys and when you get into your car, you cant find them? That is mind wandering.

  • Loss of awareness of the surrounding. You are in a conversation with a group of friends, they are laughing and throwing in opinions. One of them goes like, ‘’isnt it true Peter?’’, on calling your name, your attention returns to the conversation fidgeting. Then your friends ask if you are with them. That is a symptom of mind wandering.

  • Inability to deal with stress. Our ability to deal with stress depends on how we control the thoughts that trigger stress. Often times we lose control of our thoughts and allow anything to enter our minds including negative thoughts. When our minds are wandering we become vulnerable to stress due to the negative thoughts that roam freely in them.

Effects/dangers of mind wandering

  • Driving accidents. An activity like driving is something which requires maximum attention yet with little or no emotions involved. A wandering mind puts one at risk of causing a car accident. One’s mind can wander and by the time it returns to driving, an accident can possibly be caused.
Mind wandering can cause car accidents
  • Work inefficiency. It is had to be efficient at work when your mind is wandering every other time. This puts one at risk of losing a job or a promotion.

  • Low productivity. Often times we are busy. Busy doing something or busy thinking. However not every busy person is productive. A wandering mind can be busy thinking but not productive at all. If your mind wanders 47% of your wake day, that means you are unproductive 47% of the time. If the percentage of mind wandering in your wake day increases to 60%, that means your productivity is as low as 40%.

  • Affective dysfunctions. These are disorders that affect the way you think and feel. For example, depression and bipolar disorder. Matt Killingsworth went on to discover that the 47% of the time our minds wander in our wake day, we tend to think of negative thoughts mostly. This then sets us into rumination over these negative thoughts which then trigger negative emotions that distort the way we feel and think. If we are depressed or have bipolar, the situation can escalate and become severe.

The severity of mind wandering.

My friend John, had to struggle with a record of being fired at 6 jobs due to low productivity and inefficiency. He was always the first at work, but the moment he sat on his desk and started on something to do, his mind left him and went wandering from place to place.

It started off as mild until it got worse. His attention span was reduced to an average of 10 minutes per her hour. Working for 8 hours a day, he became productive for only an hour and twenty minutes. This left many tasks undone. He got issues with his bosses who would later fire him.

Mind-wandering if not curbed, can lead to a decreasing attention span which in turn leads to a decreased productivity duration.

When mind-wandering becomes severe, it can result in situations similar to maladaptive daydreaming where a person gets engaged in long intense thinking.

Since most of the time we think of negative things when our minds wander, we most likely sink into low confidence and low self-esteem from the negative thoughts and the consequential low productivity.

How to stop mind wandering.

Breaking the habit of mind wandering is not an easy thing to do. It is not impossible however, with commitment, consistency, and perseverance you can tame your mind to focus. You can take control of it to manage where your attention goes. Here are six ways to efficiently stop mind wandering.

1. Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the quality or state of being conscious and aware of what is happening in one’s mind and environment. In regards to mind wandering, it is a mental state one obtains by smoothly and calmly focusing on the present while acknowledging stray thoughts and distractions. Yes, you can still be focused and at the same time acknowledge the presence of stray thoughts.

Imagine you are watching the news on Tv while your child is playing with your hair. You are getting everything the news anchor is saying unbothered by the child’s finger movements in your hair. That is mindfulness. You are calmly focused on watching the news and acknowledging that your child is playing with your hair.

Mindfulness curbs mind wandering by keeping you focused on the task at hand and at the same time aware that stray thoughts are trying to distract you. The magic in mindfulness is ‘’attention’’. It gives you power and decision over your attention.

Standing between two attention seekers; the task at hand and unrelated stray thoughts, mindfulness gives you the power to consciously decide what to give your attention to. If you decide to give your attention to the task at hand, the stray thoughts will weaken and reduce the occurrence which in turn intensifies your focus.

You can practice mindfulness by lighting a candle flame and focusing your attention on it. Smoothly, seamlessly and calmly bring back your attention to the candle flame whenever you notice your mind wandering. Take notice of the movements of the flame, fades, smoke, etc. focus and focus.

It can be anything else if it’s not a candle flame. It can be food that you have for lunch. Notice its taste, smell, and everything about it. Be there with your food. The concept is keeping attention on something.

Bringing your attention back whenever it’s taken away. You can set a given time to do this. Start with five minutes aday for a week and increase it as you progress. It will not be easy at the start but if you don’t give up, you will win.

2. Exercise

One thing I have a testimony about is exercise. It has done a lot of wonders for me. One of those is improving my ability to focus. I work out five days a week. An hour per day.

It is hard to be jogging with your attention absent or with the mind wandering. You just have no option but to be in the present and focused on jogging. Otherwise, you will run into a tree and hit your head. Either you or the tree will fall down. Guess what, it will be you.

Can you get stray thoughts when exercising? Yes, you can. However, your mind will naturally acknowledge them and stay focused on working out. This natural allocation of your attention and focus trains your mind to stop mind wandering. The mind then carries it on even when you are doing other less active tasks like reading a book.

Exercise increases focus

3. Meditation

Set a timer for at least 10minutes every day. Get in your most comfortable position in a calm and quiet environment. Close your eyes and slowly breathe in and out. Keep your attention on your breath. Do not fight stray thoughts. Let them move in and out as they wish.

Acknowledge their presence with attention on your breath. It won’t be easy at first but it will get easier with consistency. Meditation trains your mind to be in one place. It trains you to focus. It trains you to release stray thoughts. It gives you control of your mind and increases mindfulness.

4. Yoga

Practicing yoga poses helps you practice mindfulness and focus. The poses train you to be actively focused. Yoga works the same way as body exercise. The difference is that yoga focuses more on steady postures and relaxation of muscles while exercise puts emphasis on movement and stress on the muscles. The similarity is that both require the presence of the mind despite prevailing stray thoughts.

5. Learn Tai Chi.

Tai chi is an ancient Chinese tradition practiced for self-defense, exercise, and meditation. It involves slow movements of the hands, legs, and the entire body. For one to successfully do a tai chi technique, they need intense focus involved in making movements.

The more one does it, the more they train their mind to focus. In turn, this increases one’s attention span and reduces mind wandering.

6. Have great and intimate sex.

As explained earlier, our minds easily wander when we are engaged in activities that do not have our emotions involved. When having sex, most especially with someone we have feelings for, our emotions are so much involved that our minds can find it impossible to wander.

In fact, when you find your mind wandering during sex, know that there is a problem with you or the sex isn’t good or intimate.

When we often have good and intimate sex, we train our minds to be present and ignore other stray thoughts and distractions. Many studies have been conducted about the impact of sex on brain function.

One common denominator is that sex increases brain power through elevating focus, reducing anxieties, and creating a calm mind. In fact, in some societies like the Hindu, sex is a form of meditation called tantric sex.

Conclusion:  One question that has greatly helped me jump off the spaceship of mind wandering whenever I find myself aboard is one I got from Tim Ferris’s book, The 4-hour work. ‘’Am I being productive, or just active?’’. It has become second nature to me to ask myself that question. Sometimes my mind wanders but because I have gotten used to asking myself that question, it comes to me as uncalled as the unrelated thoughts. That works for me. Other tools that have helped me greatly are all above. You do not have to do them all at once or every day. Find one that you can do consistently. I started off with meditation. It’s part of my morning ritual. Every day I meditate for 10minutes. Pick out one and start off your war against mind wandering. Your mind will not stop wandering at once. The more you meditate, exercise, or have intimate sex, the less it will wander. Before you know it, your mind will come from wandering 47% of the time to 5% which is very healthy. Share with me your experience with mind wandering in the comments

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