It’s human nature for your mind to wander from time to time. If you’re like many people, your thoughts are like Grand Central Station with so many ideas coming and going you don’t have a chance to focus on that deadline or pause to catch your breath. In fact, it could be wandering right now. You could be thinking about what you ate for lunch and what you “should” have eaten. You could be worried about unpaid bills, an unfinished project or that your savings isn’t enough to pull you through. Or you might be replaying in your head an argument you had with your spouse.
When your mind wanders too much, it could be stressing you out and preventing you from focusing on that important deadline. Or at the very least preventing you from fully relaxing. Your wandering mind misses the beautiful sunset, the warm breeze brushing against your face or the soft music on your car radio, or the chance to have a meaningful conversation with a co-worker or family member.
Neuroscience And Mind Wandering
Harvard scientists found that the human mind wanders 47% of the time and that when you stray you pay. The researchers contacted 2,200 people around the world at random over several days and asked them each to use their iPhone to report what they were doing, thinking about and feeling. Nearly half of the world’s population was mentally absent during such activities as personal grooming, commuting, cooking, working, taking a walk, shopping and so forth. The study concluded that when your mind wanders, you’re more stressed and unhappy than when you stay in the here and now. No matter what people were doing, even if they were working overtime, vacuuming the house or stuck in traffic—they were happier if they were focused on the activity instead of allowing their minds to wander and think about something else.
In January of this year, neuroscientists at the University of California at Berkley discovered that we have diverse trains of thought—stray thoughts, deliberately constrained thoughts, automatically constrained thoughts and task unrelated thoughts—and each type has a distinct electrophysiological signature. So it’s possible to know when your thoughts are roaming or you’re concentrating.
Staying In The Here And Now
We have become a nation immune to the present moment. How many people do you notice in a day driving while texting, running in the park shackled to their cell phones on a beautiful day or checking emails during meetings? The human mind wasn’t designed to overrun you with flooding thoughts. But sometimes it can act like an unruly child that needs discipline and self-regulation. Not unlike the human body, cognitive health requires present-moment rest and relaxation in order for you to stay on top of your game at work. A calm, focused mind is just as essential to cognitive health as turning off your car engine to keep it from overheating.
Scientists have found that the way you use your mind determines how much stress you have, and frequent out-of-the moment episodes raise your stress needle. Keeping focused in the present moment instead of ruminating about what happened in the past (which you can’t change) or about what might happen in the future (which you can’t control) keeps your stress needle down, makes you happier and boosts your work concentration. It’s essential to get out of your head occasionally and engage in certain activities such as brisk exercise, relaxing in nature, power napping, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, yoga and massage. These activities turn off your mind’s red alert and throw a calming switch that brings balance.
Mindfulness—the peaceful and nonjudgmental observing of what’s happening around you in the present moment—is a powerful antidote to mind wandering and stress. Mindfulness techniques harness the social circuitry of the brain, enabling you to attune to the here and now and cultivate inner calm. Close your eyes for three to five minutes and focus on each thought streaming through your mind without attempting to change anything. Simply observe each thought the way you might notice a blemish on your hand—with curiosity, not judgment—holding it away from you and looking through a dispassionate eye. As you watch the thoughts, you realize they’re not you, and you’re not consciously manufacturing them. They’re just there, and they don’t define you. Once you simply observe them with interest without forcing, resisting or avoiding them, you will notice an automatic shift in your ability to focus. Perhaps your muscles are looser, heartbeat slower and breathing softer.
Focused attention on your breath is a form of mindfulness that, when practiced on a regular basis, cultivates present-mindedness that carries over into your work regimen and relationships with others. Close your eyes and breathe in and out, focusing on each in-breath and each out-breath. Follow your breath through to a full cycle from the beginning of an inhalation where the lungs are full back down to where they’re empty. Then start over again. As you stay with this cycle for five minutes, thoughts usually arise. You might wonder if you’re doing the exercise right, worry about an unfinished project or question if it’s worth your time with everything on your to-do list. Accept anything that arises with openheartedness. Each time your mind wanders off and gets caught in a chain of thought (that’s part of the meditation process), simply step out of the thought stream and gently come back to the sensations of your breath. After five minutes, slowly open your eyes and take in the colors and textures around you. Then stretch and breathe into your vivid awareness and notice how much more connected you feel to the moment and how calm, clear-minded and recharged you are.
Open awareness is another mindfulness strategy to stay focused in the present moment without requiring additional time away from your work routines. It can be any brief activity that makes you mindful of the present moment. Open awareness meditation for just 60 seconds helps you unwind, clear your head and raise your energy level. Focus on the different sounds around you, pay attention to flowers, trees or some aspect of nature. At your work station, notice the exact spot where the floor supports your feet or the back of your chair supports your back. When walking, zero in on the feeling of your feet inside your shoes and of the carpet underneath your feet. Take time to really taste your beverage of choice during the workday instead of chugging it as you ruminate over a work problem. After one minute of open awareness, bring your attention inside and notice if you’re not calmer, more focused and clearheaded.