Did you ever find yourself drifting off into a daydream when you were younger, only to be snapped back to reality by your teacher? If you’re like most of us, odds are you answered yes to this question. The truth is, even as adults, we’re prone to daydreaming, better known as “mind-wandering” in research settings, which can impact both productivity and creativity.
According to research, up to 96% of Americans experience mind-wandering every day, affecting their ability to stay focused and maintain productivity. And amazingly, estimates by Harvard University researchers Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert suggest that we often spend as much as 50% of our days engaged in daydreaming, potentially affecting our overall creative thinking and problem-solving capabilities.
Many of us have learned to see daydreaming as a bad thing that makes it hard to concentrate and stay focused on tasks. And you’re not wrong — studies have shown that in certain situations, letting your mind wander can negatively affect performance and mood.
However, there’s one key area of research that suggests daydreaming could actually boost performance. Namely, letting your mind wander may enhance creativity and your ability to come up with novel solutions.
If you don’t believe us, take it from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.
Bezos sets time aside every morning for what he calls his “puttering time.” During this time, he likes to read the newspaper, have his morning coffee, and enjoy breakfast with his family. According to CNBC, he’s found this time is essential for helping him make high-quality decisions.
Bezos isn’t the only highly successful individual who makes sure to prioritize daily time to let his mind wander.
Even with a million and one to-dos on his calendar, Elon Musk reports that the habit that “has the largest positive impact” on his life is showering. He finds it’s often there that his best ideas come to him and says that “he doesn’t feel in the right headspace without a shower.”, 
Arianna Huffington and Oprah Winfrey, both highly successful entrepreneurs, prioritize daily meditation for reflection.
What exactly is mind-wandering?
Essentially, mind-wandering is the process of your mind drifting away from the present moment. It’s also referred to as daydreaming, or task-unrelated thoughts.
You may have experienced mind-wandering when you’re engaged in a task that doesn’t demand much attention, like when you’re cleaning the dishes or going for a walk. In these instances, mind-wandering doesn’t often have much of a negative effect on productivity, and may benefit creativity.
But mind-wandering isn’t always helpful. It can become counter-productive or even dangerous depending on your current task, like if you’re trying to get through a critical report or are driving. It can also make it hard to remain connected to the present moment, preventing us from calming the mind and cultivating inner peace to lessen daily stress.
The costs and benefits of mind-wandering
Before we dive into the research, it’s important to note that researchers have found that different types of mind-wandering can have unique effects on us.
These distinctions includes:
- Spontaneous mind-wandering
- Intentional mind-wandering*
- Mind-wandering related to “tortured self-examination”
- Mind-wandering related to “anxious self-doubting”
- Mind-wandering that is unrelated to a current mood or task at hand, and reflects “an acceptance of inner experience and elaborated imagery and fantasy”*
**Experts suggest that mind-wandering offers the most benefits when we create deliberate time for it and when it’s unrelated to negative moods, allowing our minds to freely reflect and make positive subconscious connections.
Mind-wandering and creativity
Of all its potential benefits, mind-wandering has been most linked with creativity and divergent thinking (coming up with many good ideas for a problem.)
One of the first studies to directly examine creativity and mind-wandering tasked participants with solving a problem within a specific amount of time. After that time expired, participants were offered the chance to take a break, during which they were asked to not think about the problem. Interestingly, many participants returned from the break with increased “sudden intuitive solutions” to the problem.
In another study, researchers split participants up into four groups. All were given the task of coming up with novel uses for everyday items, like for a pencil or a paperclip. One group received a break mid-way through and were asked to do an undemanding task meant to maximize mind-wandering (and confirmed by later self-reports). Another group received a break, but was tasked with a demanding activity. The third group was told to rest, and the fourth group was given no break.
Unsurprisingly, the participants who did the undemanding task and experienced more mind-wandering saw a substantial increase in the number of creative ideas they produced compared to the other groups.
Mind-wandering and productivity
If there’s one area that mind-wandering seems almost conclusively unhelpful, it’s in task performance and productivity. As many of us have experienced, it can be quite frustrating to repeatedly read a paragraph because your mind struggles to stay focused.
This is one of the negative sides of spontaneous mind-wandering — it can make it a lot harder to pay attention to important tasks in our lives, maintain a consistent focus, and tap into flow states.
Studies have found that mind-wandering can lead to:
- Reduced reaction times and increased mistakes in laboratory tasks
- Worse performance in everyday activities, like “safely driving a car in a concentrated manner”
- Decreased text comprehension for both secondary school and university students
- Reduced learning during lectures
That being said, one study found that mind-wandering could actually benefit productivity by allowing workers to essentially reset and review the data they were working on with a fresh perspective.
Mind-wandering and mental health
The research of Killingsworth and Gilbert (as mentioned above) found that often, people are less happy when their minds wander. Indeed, several studies have noted the connection between an unhappy mind and a mind that frequently wanders. For instance, a study of 865 people found that higher rates of mind-wandering were linked with more depressive symptoms and “schizotypal personalities.”
However, it’s important to note that research has not conclusively found that mind-wandering causes mental health issues. Rather, research shows that the mood we begin with may guide where our mind wanders, which can worsen our already pre-existing mood.
And while our minds may wander more frequently when we’re in bad moods, research suggests we may actually be able to increase how much positive mind-wandering we experience throughout the day! (Discussed below).
How to make the most of mind-wandering
Your mind is going to wander throughout the day — that’s a given. As much as you can train your focus, even the most practiced meditator knows the mind will eventually drift. Here are a few ways you can make your mind-wandering work for you.
Be intentional with your mind-wandering.
Taking breaks deliberately to allow our minds to wander may give us the opportunity to voluntarily turn our attention inward, without interfering with task performance or prompting frustration in the same way that spontaneous mind-wandering can.
And as the research of Killingsworth and Gilbert suggests, we’re often happiest in the moments when we’re connected to the present moment, which they saw most often when survey respondents were exercising, making love, or engaged in conversation. If you struggle with remaining present, don’t worry — you’re not alone. Practicing meditation can help you learn to notice when your attention strays, and to lovingly guide it back on track.
Shift your perspective on letting your mind wander.
Getting frustrated at yourself when your mind wanders can be counterproductive, putting you in a bad mood that can make it hard to redirect your focus back to the task at hand. Plus, you may miss out on those strokes of genius that can accompany mind-wandering!
According to the American Psychological Association, numerous studies have found that we often underestimate how much enjoyment and value can come from mind-wandering.
So the next time you find your mind far away from the present, take a breath. Take this as an opportunity to reflect on your inner world and where your inner world has guided you. When you’re ready, calmly guide yourself back to the present.
Practice compassion-focused meditation.
A small study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology found that practicing compassion-focused meditation helped participants think about more positive events when mind-wandering. This could help counteract the tendency to let our mind wander most when we’re unhappy, which has been linked with poor mental health and worse moods.
Even more amazing? Researchers found that higher levels of positive mind-wandering predicted more caring behavior!
How can Muse EEG headsets help?
Using innovative EEG tools like the Muse 2 Headband and the Muse S Headband can help you become more mindful and boost your productivity and creativity. These advanced EEG headsets provide real-time feedback and guidance, helping individuals improve their meditation practice and achieve focused relaxation.
Muse users can also access over 500 guided meditations through the Muse app, including The Creativity Collection, which is designed to help you ignite your imagination and explore new ways of thinking.
- Read about the research on mind wandering with ScienceDirect HERE >>
- Learn about Jeff Bezos’s daily routine with CNBC HERE >>
- Explore Elon Musk’s most important daily habit with Business Insider HERE >>
- Discover Elon’s Musk’s Top five daily habits HERE >>
- Learn about the effects of mind-wandering on learning HERE >>
- Explore how mind-wandering affects creative problem solving HERE >>
- Discover how letting your mind wander could improve productivity HERE >>
- Read about the connection between mind-wandering and unhappiness HERE >>
- Explore the links between mind-wandering and mental health HERE >>
- Read the research on whether mind-wandering causes a bad mood or the other way around HERE >>
- Discover the benefits of mind-wandering with UC Berkeley HERE >>
- Learn how your perspective can change how you relate to mind-wandering HERE >>