The Productivity Benefits of Letting Your Mind Wander

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.

Missing Boredom

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.

Productivity Boosts

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.

8 thoughts on “The Productivity Benefits of Letting Your Mind Wander”

  1. Dude. I agree so much. I had a job in the past that was mind-numbingly boring. I probably did MAYBE three hours of work a week (and that was with volunteering to take on extra work, mind you). But I found that I really excel in situations where I’m bored to tears. It’s healthy to let your mind wander and explore constraints. You come up with great ideas that way. 🙂
    Mrs. Picky Pincher recently posted…Retirement isn’t wrinkly people playing shuffleboardMy Profile

  2. What a great reminder, Matt. I second the tip of keeping a notepad handy to jot down any thoughts for later. It also helps to do a bit of a brain dump at least weekly if not daily, to get things off of your mind. Which allows your mind to wander better as you aren’t trying to ‘hold on’ to a thought so you don’t forget it.

    1. Great point, Amy. I keep expanding the number of ways in which I get things out of my head. I started with a list of everything that needed to get done, and every time anything pops into my head that I need to do it immediately gets added to the list. Then I started a list of thoughts and ideas that could be useful in the future or that might make good writing topics but weren’t fully formed. Last year I also added journaling in the morning, which gets out a lot of things that aren’t concrete or actionable enough to make either of my lists.

      Thanks for the comment!
      Matt recently posted…How to Earn More MoneyMy Profile

  3. I often do this when driving or just before falling asleep. I can see how smartphones are running interference with our ability to daydream. When there is nothing to do or a break in conversation the first thing most people do is reach for their phones.

    Jotting notes is a great idea. Often these ideas are fleeting, so great to record them for additional consideration later. Is it bad that I keep my notes on my smartphone?
    Brian recently posted…Has Your Blog Jumped the Shark?My Profile

    1. I keep notes on my smartphone, as well. I think as long as you are able to avoid using social media apps all the time, it’s fine. For folks who struggle with apps, it’s probably best to leave their phones out of reach.

      Thanks for the comment, Brian!
      Matt recently posted…How to Earn More MoneyMy Profile

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