On any given day, studies show, you’re likely to spend as much as half your waking hours lost in la-la land. Not exactly a stat you’d put on your resume. Sitting and staring out the window might be a great way to relax, but it certainly doesn’t seem like a productive use of your time. Indeed, researchers have linked mind wandering with negative outcomes like unhappiness and poor cognitive performance. But maybe we’re failing to give spacing out its due. Recent studies have taken a closer look and found that an unfocused mind may not be so bad after all—and could actually offer benefits when done at the right time.
“Being present in the here and now is very useful when you’re driving, taking a test, or doing any kind of demanding cognitive activity, and the capacity to observe one’s own reactions is helpful, but there are also times when it’s useful to get lost in one’s thoughts, to let our thoughts take us where they will go,” says Dan Hurley, author of “Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power.” “That kind of creative mind-wandering can be powerful for deep problem solving or creative thinking.”
Mindfulness—the apparent antithesis to mind-wandering—has gone mainstream of late, with more people tuned in to themselves and each other in the interest of lowering anxiety, eating healthier, sleeping better and enjoying life (and sex!) more. So with all this focus on, well, focusing, where does zoning out fit in?
They key, experts say, is to stay focused when you need to, but to let yourself mentally unplug when you can: a healthy mix of both mindfulness and mind wandering. You can even use mindfulness to make your mind wandering more effective.
Turn your focus for now to the five benefits below, and then let yourself space out so you can enjoy them.
Boost your mood:
About those studies linking wandering minds with negative moods: It turns out content matters, several studies over the past few years have found. Wandering thoughts become a problem when they get funneled into worrying or dwelling on problems. Mentally drifting to interesting thoughts, however, is linked with a rise in positive mood, according to an August 2013 study. What to do if your mind tends to settle on those bleak thoughts more often than not? This is exactly where you can use mindfulness. Simply noticing your negative thoughts can help you quell them and shift your attention to a more pleasant stream of consciousness.
Reboot your brain:
Tuning out at times can help you do your job better, says Benjamin Mooneyham, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara, whose research group has studied the pros and cons of mind wandering. “Mind-wandering allows for the mind to leave whatever task it’s occupied with. Even if this break is brief, it may still allow for the mind to come back to the task at hand with a refreshed perspective.” Consider preparing for finals in school. We were always told that a marathon night of cramming is far less effective than spaced out study sessions the week before an exam. Mind wandering, Mooneyham and colleagues believe, may work to naturally divide a lengthy task into smaller, more mentally digestible segments.
When we purposefully focus on possible solutions to problems, we typically go to the obvious answers; it’s a well worn track, so to speak, with all of our most familiar bits of knowledge always at the ready. When the stream of thought strays off the beaten path, on the other hand, it often stumbles upon less apparent solutions. “Putting people in situations in which they can mind-wander may help them think more creatively afterwards,” says Mooneyham. In one 2012 study, participants were faced with two bouts of problem solving, with a break in between. Those who were given an undemanding task that allowed their minds to meander in the meantime came up with more creative answers to the second set of problems than those who rested quietly or labored on a tougher task. Having a tipple before you tackle a creative problem can also help free your mind and reveal surprising solutions.
Being bored is no fun, and it can be surprisingly detrimental to your health and well-being. Zoning out can be a relaxing, freeing and even fun way to make a boring situation not so miserable. “Mind wandering provides a great outlet to think about something that interests you when you’re surrounded by things that don’t,” says Mooneyham. “Sometimes it’s just better to escape from whatever you’re doing and think about something else.”
Go get your goals:
Some studies have found that when our minds wander during less demanding tasks, they gravitate toward future-focused thoughts. Research published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2013 showed that “the purpose of a substantial part of mind-wandering episodes is to plan and prepare for future events that are related to our personal goals and concerns,” says study author David Stawarczyk, Ph.D., of the University of Liège in Belgium. Letting your thoughts drift as you do tedious tasks, for instance, can help you see the reward you’ll get when you’re done, as it did for people in a March 2013 study. So, ironically, not staying fully focused sometimes can help you persevere—in life or in chores—longer than you might have otherwise.