Is mind-wandering bad for you? What are the benefits of intentional mind-wandering?
In his book Hyperfocus, productivity expert Chris Bailey explains how to let your mind wander for rest and productivity. He recommends three techniques for this practice and discusses when, how long, and how often you should do it.
Keep reading to learn about the benefits of mind-wandering and how to do it effectively.
The Benefits of Mind-Wandering
According to Chris Bailey, the author of Hyperfocus, mind-wandering isn’t inherently bad. Mind-wandering is only problematic during hyperfocus focus because it distracts you from your original intention and reduces your productivity. But mind-wandering has several benefits:
- Mind-wandering helps you plan for the future;
- Mind-wandering increases your productivity;
- Mind-wandering lets your rest your mind.
In Hyperfocus, he explains how to let your mind wander to reap these benefits. He outlines the following three steps for practicing intentional mind-wandering for productivity and focus.
#1: Perform a Fun But Easy Task
Bailey suggests performing a fun, cognitively simple task—in other words, something that takes up only a little working memory—and leaving the rest of your working memory open so that your mind can roam. Regularly check in to see what you’re thinking about, and keep a pad of paper on hand to jot down any great ideas. (Shortform note: What counts as a fun, cognitively simple task? One that Bailey recommends is walking, which both Charles Darwin and Friedrich Nietzsche regularly did. On his blog, Bailey also extols the benefits of knitting.)
Bailey suggests that this technique, which he calls “habitual mode,” is the ideal method for accessing the benefits of intentional mind-wandering for three main reasons.
First, doing something you enjoy elevates your mood—which has several benefits. Happiness increases your working memory capacity, so your mind can access more thoughts simultaneously as it wanders. (Conversely, a negative mood decreases your working memory capacity.) When you’re happy, your mind wanders towards more positive thoughts and increases the likelihood you’ll connect ideas in innovative ways. (Conversely, a negative mood increases the likelihood your mind will wander towards the past, which tends to depress you and isn’t as likely to lead to creative insights.) Finally, doing something you like is easy—so it gives your brain a break from overseeing your behavior.
In Chapter 10, Bailey elaborates further on the benefits of doing something you enjoy. He explains that happiness can be both the cause and the consequence of both hyperfocusing and intentional mind-wandering: On the one hand, being happier in general helps you hyperfocus more deeply and increases your creativity when mind-wandering for the same reasons mentioned above. On the other hand, hyperfocusing and intentional mind-wandering can result in increased happiness. Bailey argues that involuntary mind-wandering worsens your mood because your brain isn’t doing what you want it to. Hyperfocus prevents involuntary mind-wandering and allows you to focus your attention on the present; similarly, when you intentionally mind-wander, you have control over your brain and focus on more productive thoughts—so both make you happier.
|But there’s a simpler reason to improve your mood and do the things you enjoy: because it feels good. All of Bailey’s arguments hinge on the idea that doing things you enjoy allows you to better access the benefits of hyperfocus or intentional mind-wandering. But doing something you enjoy purely for the sake of achieving a particular goal can make your task less fun. |
So don’t let an obsession with success sap enjoyment from your favorite tasks: It’s still OK to enjoy things because they’re fun to do and not because they make you more productive or creative in some way. This is primarily a matter of perspective. Doing the tasks you like will still allow you to access all of the benefits Bailey espouses about happiness. But if you start to view the task as a means to an end, it will likely add to your stress levels and won’t be as fun anymore.
Secondly, doing enjoyable tasks extends the duration of your intentional mind-wandering session. The more you enjoy a task, the more likely you are to keep doing it. So if you like the task that causes your mind to wander, you’ll want to keep doing the task—so your mind will wander for longer. (Shortform note: To focus for longer, make sure that your enjoyable task is something you’re physically able to continue for long periods of time. For example, if you have trouble with your feet or carpal tunnel, long walks or knitting may not be the best idea.)
Finally, this technique maximizes your chances of capturing any creative insights you have. When you do a relatively simple task, you have more working memory available, so you can be more aware of the thoughts that pop into your head. By keeping a notebook on hand, you’re able to capture and remember these thoughts. (Shortform note: In his section on hyperfocus, Bailey notes that although we shouldn’t spend too much time on “rote tasks,” we like them because they’re more enjoyable. You may be able to use these simpler tasks at work to intentionally mind-wander.)
(Shortform note: It may also be so that the details of your habitual task help you gain insights relevant to other areas of your life. Albert Einstein arguably had so many pioneering scientific insights because he spent so much time sailing at sea. Sailing can be complicated, but the fact that Einstein regularly got lost and liked to “let [the] boat drift” suggests he spent few cognitive resources on it.)
#2: Schedule Time to Record Your Ideas
Bailey recommends scheduling two 15-minute blocks each week with just your thoughts and a notepad. During this time, don’t think about anything in particular. Instead, write down whatever useful thoughts pop into your head so you don’t forget them. He refers to this as “capture mode.”
(Shortform note: Bailey notes a list of to-dos he thought of using this mode—nearly all of which were things he needed to complete in the near future. But what if you’d like more clarity on your longer-term to-dos? Try reading books that discuss the importance of having long-term goals—like 12 Rules for Life. (Rule 4 is to judge yourself by your own goals, not by others’.) When you read books like this, you’ll have your long-term goals in the back of your mind, which may trigger mind-wandering towards actionable to-dos about the far future.)
Worried you won’t think of anything useful? Bailey argues that this is unlikely. As we’ve seen, your mind naturally focuses on threats, and your brain views tasks you haven’t yet dealt with as threats. Therefore, he argues, scheduling 15-minute blocks to think about nothing in particular will inevitably lead you to think about all the things you need to complete in the future. But if you’re concerned, Bailey recommends wandering around your house or office. The environmental cues you encounter might remind you of tasks you need to deal with—like when you look in your refrigerator and remember to buy milk.
|Why Completing Tasks Might Help You Mind-Wander|
This technique appears slightly contradictory to Bailey’s argument that the benefits of mind-wandering outweigh its potential harms. He argues that it’s worth mind-wandering because we rarely ruminate on negative thoughts—but if your mind regularly wanders towards something it sees as a threat, doesn’t that mean it’s wandering towards a negative thought?
Presumably, Bailey doesn’t see the stress from incomplete tasks as a reason not to mind-wander because incomplete tasks are usually easy to deal with. But if you have many incomplete tasks on your plate—especially ones you’ve been avoiding that are an active source of stress—you may feel especially resistant to intentional mind-wandering. Reduce this resistance by completing a few easy tasks.
#3: Think About a Problem While You Do Something Else
Do you have a major problem that requires a critical solution? Have you tried traditional techniques—like brainstorming—to no avail? If so, Bailey recommends thinking about this problem while you do something else for 30-60 minutes. He refers to this as “problem-crunching mode.” Mull over the problem in your head, attacking it from different perspectives. If your mind wanders away from this problem, bring it back. (This isn’t to say that you hyperfocus on the problem—hyperfocus involves single-tasking, so in hyperfocus, you would think only about this problem and not do anything else. In problem-crunching mode, you let your mind wander while you do something else.)
This is the least clear of Bailey’s techniques for intentional mind-wandering for two major reasons:
#1: Bailey doesn’t explicitly recommend thinking about the problem while you do something else—he only recommends thinking about the problem. However, all of his examples involve him thinking about his problems while doing something else, such as canoeing or walking around town. Therefore, thinking about your problem while you do another task appears to be the essential element of problem-crunching mode.
#2: Bailey recommends reserving problem-crunching mode for only your most difficult situations because you can access “the same problem-solving benefits (and then some)” in habitual mode. However, he never makes clear why problem-crunching mode is better for more difficult problems. Perhaps it’s because in problem-crunching mode, you’re deliberately directing your mind-wandering towards a specific problem, so you’re more aware of the thoughts you’re having—and you’re more likely to capture any creative insights you hit upon.
|Hyperfocus vs Focused-Mode Thinking: Comparing Hyperfocus and A Mind for Numbers|
In general, Bailey’s descriptions of hyperfocus and intentional mind-wandering are similar to what Barbara Oakley’s A Mind for Numbers calls focused-mode thinking and diffuse-mode thinking.
Oakley explains that in focused-mode thinking, you focus your attention on something and process detailed information. But focused-mode thinking is susceptible to the “Einstellung effect,” which occurs when you are unable to solve a problem because the solution is outside the scope of where you are looking for it. You can circumvent the Einstellung effect by switching to diffuse-mode thinking: You relax your focus and let your mind wander, but your subconscious continues to work on the problem. During this time, you mentally step away from detailed problems and see the big picture or generate creative solutions by making connections between diverse concepts.
In hyperfocus, you also focus your attention on something and process detailed information—just like you do in focused-mode thinking. In scatterfocus, you also relax your focus and let your mind wander—just like you do in diffuse-mode thinking. However, Oakley’s text is geared towards learning, so her descriptions of focused-mode and diffuse-mode thinking describe how to use the modes to solve problems. In contrast, Bailey’s text is focused more broadly on attention. So while you can hyperfocus to solve a problem, you can also use it for other things, too—like responding to an email or having a conversation. Similarly, you can switch between hyperfocus and scatterfocus to solve a problem. But scatterfocus also has several other benefits, like giving your brain a break.
When, How Long, and How Often to Mind-Wander Intentionally
When, exactly, should you mind-wander intentionally? The best time to mind-wander intentionally depends on several factors, like your schedule and your purpose for mind-wandering. Therefore, just as with hyperfocus, Bailey recommends pre-scheduling your intentional mind-wandering sessions at the beginning of each week based on your commitments and your needs.
Bailey also recommends the following general strategies for deciding when to intentionally mind-wander.
Mind-wander intentionally when you’re tired. Bailey explains that the more tired you are, the less restrained your brain is—which leads to increased creativity. He suggests tracking your energy levels and scheduling intentional mind-wandering sessions for when you’re lacking in energy. (Shortform note: This is an interesting recommendation given that, as Bailey posits, one major reason to mind-wander intentionally is to give your brain a break. Intentionally mind-wandering for the express purpose of having a creative insight when you’re tired seems like placing pressure on an already-tired brain, which would only tire you out more. So while you could mind-wander intentionally for creativity when you’re tired, it may be better to intentionally mind-wander for rest when you’re tired most of the time instead.)
Mind-wander intentionally after drinking. Bailey explains that alcohol increases your creativity. But it also decreases your ability to think logically and decreases your working memory capacity—so use it sparingly. (Shortform note: The link between alcohol and creativity may contribute to why so many famous artists—like Vincent Van Gogh and Jackson Pollock—suffered from alcoholism.)
Mind-wander intentionally when you need to be more creative. Bailey suggests that although everybody should intentionally mind-wander multiple times a day, you should schedule sessions more often during weeks that will require more creativity. (Shortform note: As we’ll see, you can intentionally mind-wander in situations designed to increase your creativity—but by nature, you can’t force yourself to have creative insights at a given time. The more often you intentionally mind-wander, however, the higher the likelihood that you’ll gain a creative insight.)
As for how long to intentionally mind-wander, Bailey explains that sessions of at least 15 minutes help your brain switch properly from hyperfocus to scatterfocus mode. Still, shorter periods are also beneficial because they allow you to rest and zoom out on your day. (Shortform note: Bailey doesn’t specify why you need 15 minutes. It may be because, as we’ve seen, tasks don’t immediately leave your working memory once you stop doing them and instead leave behind some mental residue that takes a while to dissipate. So if you’ve been properly hyperfocused on a task, it may take that long for your mind to begin wandering at all.)
And how often should you intentionally mind-wander? Bailey recommends that everybody should schedule several intentional mind-wandering sessions each day for maximum benefit. (He doesn’t explicitly state why, but this is presumably to give yourself regular breaks from hyperfocusing.)
Signs You Need to Mind-Wander More Often
If any of the following apply, Bailey recommends that you intentionally mind-wander more often:
You hyperfocus a lot. It may seem counterintuitive, but in general, hyperfocus actually makes you better at intentional mind-wandering. Hyperfocus increases your working memory capacity. When you’re able to hold more information in your working memory at once, your mind can wander around more information—so you can potentially make more connections and have better ideas. (Shortform note: Since meditation and mindfulness both also increase your working memory capacity, practicing them should increase the productivity of your intentional mind-wandering sessions.)
Hyperfocus helps you remember more. You draw upon the information you remember to think of creative thoughts and to accurately imagine the future, so remembering more improves the benefits you get from intentional mind-wandering. (Shortform note: Hyperfocus might also help you remember more because it gets you in the right state: You’re focused on paying attention, so you learn more. Similarly, Limitless suggests you learn best when you approach what you’re learning in a state of joy, curiosity, and interest.)
Thirdly, hyperfocus increases our attentional awareness. This also helps us when we mind-wander intentionally because we’re able to notice when we have useful insights and remember them. (Shortform note: This may be a double-edged sword: Although researchers state that knowing that your mind is wandering improves creativity, they also state that knowing that your mind is wandering might prevent it from wandering in the first place. So if you struggle to make your mind wander at first, persist.)
However, training your brain to focus on one thing for long periods of time causes it to wander less. This is great for hyperfocus. But it means you won’t get the benefits of mind-wandering unless you mind-wander intentionally. Additionally, hyperfocus is tiring. The more often you do it, the more often you’ll need to recharge by intentionally mind-wandering.
(Shortform note: It seems probable that even though intentional mind-wandering recharges you, deliberately directing your attention at all times might be exhausting—especially if you’re used to spending most of your day in autopilot mode. To truly give yourself a break, give yourself permission to do absolutely nothing.)
You rely on creativity. As we’ll see, intentional mind-wandering can regularly induce creative insights.
You need to get it right the first time. (Shortform note: Bailey explains that intentional mind-wandering as you create a plan saves time when you execute the plan, but he doesn’t specify why. One reason may be that when your mind wanders, you imagine potential worst-case scenarios and are thus able to implement a plan that prevents them.)
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Here's what you'll find in our full Hyperfocus summary:
- Why it's just as important to learn how to manage your attention, along with your time
- Why you still feel tired no matter how many breaks you take
- Strategies for managing your attention for better productivity and creativity