Mind-wandering is the ability of the brain to generate thoughts that are unrelated, or somehow related to what we're actually doing right now.

"When the mind wanders, attention drifts from its current train of thought (often an external task) to mental content generated by the individual rather than cued by the environment." Source

If the outcome of what we're doing right now, is considered with low value, we'll automatically seek to find another goal that is with higher value – or at least something that can give us a faster outcome.

Another common escape routes for the mind is past-related thoughts and future thinking. Unhappiness and past problems, or current, which are again based on past experiences, stray our minds towards past events. Future-thinking model is more related to happy feelings. If we're working on a long-term goal, you'll often think about the possible happy outcomes.

Perceptual decoupling: In this state, we completely disengaging from what is happening here and now. We focus on internal desires and pay little, or no attention to what's happening around us. In perceptual decoupling you're basically imagining a whole new world.

Reduce Mind-Wandering

You can't completely shut off-task thoughts.

  • Increase difficulty: Tasks that are nearly automated and require little mental effort from your side are mind-wandering incubators. Increase the difficultly of the task.
  • Social pressure: Put yourself in front of others. The social stress and the fear of being publicly ashamed will arm you with the power to focus.
  • Journaling: The best way to get current or past problems off your head is writing them down. The act of writing what needs to be done will liberate you from the constant thoughts.
  • Meta-awareness: The faster you “catch” yourself drifting, the faster you'll bring your mind back to the task at hand. When you realize that you're zoning out, you can write down what you're thinking about on a piece of paper and move on with your task.
  • Mindfulness training: Researchers show that this is one of the best ways to reduce the constant buzzing thoughts and train your mind to concentrate for longer periods of time.
  • Remove distractions: The easiest way to reduce the amount of not-related thoughts is by removing distractions from your work environment.

How Can You Use Mind Wandering to Your Advantage?

  • A sense of meaning: If what you are doing right now feels meaningless, your ability to question the task and have an inner dialog about the importance of the job will give you a sense of purpose and direction.
  • Mental break: Forcing yourself to focus all the time can lead to burnout. Mental rest is just as important as physical rest, if not more so.
  • Creativity: Finding new, original solutions to current problems or “inventing” something new can rarely happen when you're focused on a current task that has pre-set outcomes. You need to let your mind drift to solve problems in a new way.

Over 40% of the participants' creative ideas occurred when they were engaged in a non-work-related activity and/or thinking about something unrelated to the topic. Moreover, although creative ideas that occurred during mind wandering were not rated overall as more creative, they were more likely to be characterized as involving an “Aha!” experience.”