When I started making a concerted effort to be more productive, I knew I had to make better use of my time.
One of the early steps in this process was adding podcasts and audio books to my day. Previously, while walking to the subway or around the neighborhood, I would have just let my mind wander. I replaced this lost time with extra learning.
The extra knowledge helped. I felt more productive on my walks. But I started feeling more overwhelmed with the work I had on my plate the rest of the time. It felt like I was actually getting less done.
According to the research, I probably was.
I had lost the benefits of letting my mind wander.
The trap that I fell into was a common one in the modern world.
While most people are probably not trying to maximize their productivity, they still lean on their phones. “Down time” calls for checking Twitter or Instagram or playing a game these days.
Our phones prevent boredom.
The problem is that boredom serves a purpose. It allows our minds to wander aimlessly.
And wandering minds convey an unexpected number of benefits.
First, allowing your mind to wander improves your creative problem solving abilities.
Researchers have found that when your mind wanders it engages it what they call “creative incubation.” While you have moved on to other topics, the back of your mind is constantly looking for an answer to your ongoing problems.
This is quite similar to the Zeigarnik Effect that we have previously explored. When we walk away from a problem, our brain keeps working to solve it.
Research has also found that allowing your mind to wander increases attention and motivation. When combined with the increased problem solving, this can hugely boost productivity.
Wandering Into the Future
On a grander scale, allowing your mind to wander allows you to step away from the current moment in time. This has very large implications.
Getting a larger view of life allows for better big picture planning. Research shows that wandering minds largely turn to “the anticipation and planning of the future.” People who allow their minds to wander are better equipped to make big plans for their future.
Relatedly, mind-wandering improves our ability to prioritize long-term goals over short-term wants. If you’ve ever struggled to remember your long term goal of losing weight and being healthy over your short term want of eating unhealthy food, then you know how valuable this ability can be.
Finally, all of this contributes to an increased sense of self. The more time you spend alone with your mind, thinking about the future and your long-term goals, the better you will know yourself. This improves confidence, self-esteem, and identity.
How to Wander
The first thing to remember when working to allow your mind to wander more is that it is not hurting your productivity.
Take breaks. Close your eyes for a few minutes. Allow yourself short retreats from work, knowing that they will improve your productivity.
Take walks without headphones.
Routine tasks that require minimal focused attention are great. Because you aren’t really thinking about the work, your mind has space to wander. This is why you have your best ideas in the shower.
Look for routine tasks in your office or around your home that you can use as mind wandering time.
Finally, for maximum productivity benefits, keep a notepad or a notepad app with you at all times. Capture any thoughts or ideas that seem particularly worth saving and then allow your mind to drift back into wandering mode.
Allowing your mind to wander will make you more creative and productive as well as more confident about yourself and better prepared for the future.
It’s also fun from time to time.