Has this ever happened to you? You sit down to work on an important project with a looming deadline and suddenly, without warning, your mind slinks off to some other place as if slipping out the back door of a bad meeting. Before you know it, an hour has passed and you can't remember how, or where, you spent the time. You got sucked into a vortex of mind wandering, and you feel lousy you wasted so much time on something other than the task at hand.
Don't worry. You're not alone. Research shows our minds wander about 47 percent of the time, regardless of the activity we're involved in. That's nearly half our waking hours. What's worse, the majority of that time is spent on negative thinking. In business, the implications of this are massive: if our tendency is to ruminate on negative thoughts to the detriment of what's right in front of us, then the likelihood of quality work being done well, on time, is greatly diminished.
In today's hyper-connected world, it's easy to get distracted by a myriad of pings, rings and dings emerging from our devices. Marketers, app makers and just about everyone under the sun seems to be in a frenzied competition for our attention, which makes it nearly impossible for even the most disciplined among us to stay focused.
The good news is we can train our brains to tune-out distractions, be more focused, and get more done by noticing when our minds wander, says Vanderbilt University researcher and neuroscientist David Vago. Meditation is one way to do that.
"(Meditation training) allows us to accomplish tasks with less mind wandering and therefore increases our overall efficiency," Vago says on this episode of 10% Happier, a podcast hosted by ABC News correspondent Dan Harris.
What the science says
In a study conducted by Harvard researchers Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert, 5,000 people from 83 different countries across all ages were found to mind wander about 47 percent of their daily lives, no matter what they are doing. When they did mind wander, the research showed, it wandered most often to something self-reflective and negative in content which, as it turns out, can be causally linked to their unhappiness.
"A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind," write Killingsworth and Gilbert. "The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost."
What to do?
In your own life you may find yourself easily distracted, say, on a computer at work or doing something simple like a household chore or even when having a conversation. By developing cognitive mechanisms like sustained attention and inhibitory control (the ability to filter out irrelevant stimuli), you can train your brain to stay on task for longer periods.
"Mind wandering is a normal part of our everyday lives, and it can be helpful to know what's happening when the mind moves into this state," Vago says. "This is part of cultivating sustained attention and inhibitory control."
Meditation is a way to train your brain to notice when it wanders and gently return to the present moment when it does. And, as a sweet side-benefit of this more focused state, we also increase our levels of happiness, he says.
Meditation is a simple practice, but not easy. There are a lot of misconceptions about what should and should not happen when meditating. For starters, the goal of meditation is not to stop your brain from thinking. You wouldn't want to stop thinking any more than you'd want your heart to stop beating or your liver to stop working. The goal of meditation is not to cease thoughts. Rather, it's to be aware of the thoughts that arise so you can make better decisions.
Experienced meditators are able to see the thoughts that arise and determine whether they are helpful or not. They develop the habit of observation. Ask yourself: what kind of content does your mind occupy itself with when it wanders?
Ironically, says Vago, as soon as you know your mind is wandering, your mind is no longer wandering. Instead, you're aware -- and in that awareness you have some choice about what to pay attention to.
"Science is beginning to demonstrate that strengthening our capacity to pay attention allows us to be more fully present, resist our impulse toward distraction, selectively filter out irrelevant information and respond more wisely," Vago says.
"When we see the mind has wandered, we bring it back...(and) we inhibit the wandering."