Are you this sort of person?
- Do you read something, realize you haven’t been taking it in, so you have to read it again?
- Do you find you forget why you went from one part of the house to another?
- Do you find that you miss signposts you are looking for while driving? Do you find you haven’t been listening to people’s names when you are introduced to them?
- Do you find you accidentally throw away the thing you wanted to keep and keep the thing you wanted to throw away?
- Does your mind wander when you should be listening?
- Do you start doing one thing and then accidentally get distracted into doing another?
If you do a lot of these things a lot of the time, then it means you are prone to mind-wandering.
There is nothing wrong with mind-wandering if you are doing it deliberately – say lying back in that hot bath, brainstorming about what nice things you might do for the weekend.
But if your mind wanders a lot while you are doing other things – like reading or talking or working – research shows that it tends to pull your mood down.
Why is this? – Our minds have a negative bias – when they go walkabout without our control, they sniff out emotional trouble – i.e. unresolved conflicts which are what worries, doubts and regrets are.
Our brains are primed to detect conflict and whenever they do, they send out strong signals that interrupt our ongoing mental activity – a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate is key here.
Because worries, doubts and regrets are examples of conflicts, our minds preferentially attend to these over positive thoughts and memories and this pulls our mood down, making it harder to stay focused. Hence a vicious cycle develops.
This is why wandering minds tend to be unhappy minds. So what can we do about it?
The greatest protector against a wandering mind is focus. Paying attention to what we are doing – even if it is an ordinary task like washing dishes in the kitchen – helps prevent our minds going walkabout and hence sniffing out mood-lowering thoughts and memories.
This is one reason that mindfulness practices can be so helpful to people. It’s amazing how pleasurable a very ordinary activity like wiping a table or eating an apple can be if you simply take the time to focus your attention on the task and notice the various sensations involved.
Here are some other tips to help you decide when your mind wanders rather than letting it decide:
Work around your alertness
Your mind is more likely to wander when your alertness levels are at their lowest – am if you are an evening person or pm if you are a morning person. Plan to be occupied with routine tasks as much as possible or be physically active during your low alertness times.
Deliberately bias your memory towards positive experiences.
If you are in a negative mood, write down in a notebook the positive experiences you have had today, recently and in the past and make a note of the good things you have done. This will bias your memory system to remember more of these and may help lift your mood.
Remember that regret is a useless emotion – regret is only useful if you use it as an impulse to change something. Don’t dwell on the past – use regret as an impulse to do something about the present and future.
In my book The Stress Test: How Pressure Can Make You Stronger and Sharper (Bloomsbury – out 3rd January), I give more examples of how you can discover the benefits of stress.Try the Stress Questionnaire on www.ianrobertson.org and follow me on Twitter @ihrobertson