It happens to all of us: you’re working away on something you’ve got to get done, and suddenly you realize that for quite some time you’ve been lost in a reverie about something else entirely. You don’t know when your mind went off track, nor how long you’ve been meandering down this one.
Our minds wander, on average 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 was during work: mind-wandering is epidemic on the job. But we can take steps that will help us stay on task more of the time when we need to.
1. Manage your temptations.
Many of the distractors that pull us away from what we’re working on are digital: tweets, emails, and the like. There are several apps that can wall off those temptations to wander off. Chrome has two free apps that do this: Nanny for Google blocks off websites you might be tempted to visit, for whatever length of time you decide; StayFocusd limits the amount of time (also set by you) you can spend in your inbox, on Facebook, or wherever else you might be seduced away.
2. Monitor your mind and take second thoughts.
Noticing where your mind has gone – checking your twitter feed instead of working on that report – gives you the chance for a second thought: “my mind has wandered off again.” That very thought disengages your brain from where it has wandered and activates brain circuits that can help your 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 your breath, noticing when your mind has wandered off, letting go of the wandering thought and bringing it back to your 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 what gets stronger are the brain’s circuits for noticing when your mind has wandered, letting go, and returning to your chosen focus. And that’s just what we need to stay with during that one important task we’re working on.