Reining in Your Wandering Mind

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By Sander A. Flaum

We spend nearly half of our waking hours thinking about something other than what we are doing in the present moment, say Harvard psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert. The researchers used an iPhone app they created to poll 2,250 subjects ranging in age from 18 to 88 at random times throughout the day, asking them about what they were currently doing, how happy they were, and whether or not they were thinking about their current activity or something else that was pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.

Subjects chose from 22 general activities and reported back that their minds wandered on average 46.9% of the time, and no less than 30% of the time during any given activity, except making love. Along with other assessments, the researchers concluded that “mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness. In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.” The results appeared in the November 2010 issue of Science.

“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” Killingsworth and Gilbert conclude. “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”

This statistical confirmation that our minds do indeed wander and that it is not necessarily a happy occurrence, underscores the necessity of practicing the art of remaining focused. I say “practice” because staying focused takes a conscious effort. It requires us, particularly at work, to notice when our mind has gone somewhere else and to gently bring ourselves back to the moment. We must train ourselves to return from detours to the present past or future, back to the present task at hand. Because to be effective, one’s mind must be clear and centered.

Given the mind’s natural tendencies to think about what isn’t happening, contemplate what used to happen, may happen, or has never happened, this is hard enough; but add a handheld device that takes us out of the present moment multiple times an hour and you can easily spend a day chasing your own tail, without ever settling into the work in front of you. The “smart phone,” which is capable of connecting us to everything except the activity or person right in front of us, is making us even more distracted and dysfunctional. The gadget plays into our basic instinct to interrupt ourselves and exit out of the present. How “smart” is that?

I recently worked with a group where one of the members confided that he puts his iPhone outside the shower and checks the device during his shower. Many people I spoke to said they felt their phones were controlling them, rather than the other way around. Others confessed that their BlackBerries and phones make their workday feel like an ongoing, unending information deluge. “It’s like our work lives are always in the ‘on’ mode,” said one executive.

What the Harvard study brings out is that our cell phones didn’t create our wandering mind; rather, we possess a wandering mind that our phones support and encourage. Responding to their constant interruption is easier, I believe, than staying focused on the task in front of you.

So what should we do? First, we have to acknowledge the natural tendency of the mind to want to escape the world of the present moment at least half of the time. Simply accept this reality and commit to working with it and through it. Second, we must determine when we feel the most productive and the happiest at work. This is the “in the zone” high that makes work enjoyable. Simultaneously, we have to acknowledge how the “smart phone-in-the-pocket” syndrome impedes this. And third, we have to ask ourselves every day, “Am I ready to stop inhibiting my success by having my ‘interrupters’ turned on all the time? How important is it to be diverted? Alerted? Permitted to interrupt myself? How helpful is it to my work, to my happiness, to my greater good?”

When the wandering mind never arrives at a destination, meaninglessness and lack of fulfillment are the unwelcome results. Yes, it’s hard to keep the wandering mind on the path of sustained focus, because seeking interruption is natural. Few will argue that it requires great discipline and ongoing practice to stay on task. 

One can only hope that multitasking has had its 15 minutes of fame.

About the Author(s)

Sander A. Flaum is Principal, Flaum Navigators, and Chairman, Fordham Leadership Forum, Fordham University Graduate School of Business Administration. Contact him at [email protected]