The mind is a powerful ally. When it works for you, it can provide clarity and focus that are vital to your well-being and success. But after prolonged stress or prolonged mental exertion, the mind will often try to save every bit of energy it has left. This is known as mind wandering.
When you’re under pressure or challenged with complex problems, your mind will immediately go into autopilot in order to save energy and make sure that you process the problem only at a subconscious level. You’ll be less likely to notice that you’re doing this so it won’t affect how much progress you make on the issue.
What is mind-wandering and why does it happen?
Mind-wandering is simply any attention that is directed away from the present moment. When your mind wanders, it’s not “wandering” in the sense that it’s lost. It’s actually scanning. Your mind will scan areas of your environment, your body, and even your own thoughts and feelings in order to pick out any relevant information. It will then store this information in your long-term memory.
But this scanning and information picking is often not useful to you. You don’t want to be creating a mental “map” of your thinking or your feelings. You just want to be fully present and aware at the moment. So when your mind wanders, you don’t want it to be creating that map. Instead, it’s a natural, helpful process. You just have to learn to recognize when it happens and redirect it back to the present.
How to get your mind back on track
- Accept what your mind is doing – Let your mind wander. When you realize that it has wandered, don’t try to “catch” it. Just let it go again. Repeatedly, without judgment. Your mind will soon get the hint that it needs to let go of this energy conservation.
- Don’t try to “fix” your mind – There’s no need to force your mind to be present. You need to accept that your mind is going to wander and not try to force it to be somewhere else.
- Make a daily “bucket list” – You need to get your mind moving in a positive direction. You need to find something (anything!) that you can do each day to move your mind in a positive direction. This doesn’t need to be a “big” thing. It can be as simple as taking a walk, putting some music on and dancing around the house, or doing a few jumping jacks. It doesn’t have to be “productive” either. You can do a few simple tasks that help you shift your perspective, like writing a few notes in your journal about how you feel, or making a to-do list with a few non-demanding tasks on it.
- Connect with people – You’re much less likely to lose your mind if there’s someone or something in your life that you connect with. Make sure that you’re connected with something – a hobby, a community, a cause -that will keep you moving in a positive direction.
To shift from autopilot to focused work
The key to moving from autopilot to focused work is to add a “pause” to every process. You need to pause at every individual “step” of the process. This allows you to catch your attention and make sure that you’re fully focused on it. If you keep moving, you’ll quickly lose your attention and make a mistake.
During these pauses, you can “mark” your thoughts and feelings so that you’re sure that you fully understand what you’re doing. This “marking” can be as simple as putting a Post-it note on your desk. You can also make a mental note of the feeling that you want to keep in mind while you’re pausing the process.
To make your mind feel more productive, you need a proactive routine
If you want your mind to feel more productive, you need to turn the tables. You need to start thinking about your mind as an “energy bank” that can only be filled by positive and productive activities. You need to “bank” your mind with regular, thoughtful activities that “pay” your mind for the energy that is spent “wandering” during the day.
If you don’t do this, your mind will quickly “run out of gas” and try to conserve energy by “wandering” even more. This doesn’t mean that you need to spend all your time doing “work”. It just needs to be something that gives you a mindful pause. Something that “marks” your thoughts and feelings so that you can stay connected and “charged” while you’re doing it.
The most important thing to remember is that you don’t need to judge yourself. The important thing to do is to stay present with the challenges and pressures you face. If you keep your head down and focus on your work, you’ll make progress. The key is to be present for the challenge and to make time for the grateful pause.