Do you notice when your mind has wandered? When it strays away from what you’re doing to a completely unrelated thought: to past experience or future possibility?

Have you ever thought how much time you actually spend with your mind elsewhere? How much more could you get done if you could manage its tendency to wander away…?

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Nature has gifted us a brain with a fantastic ability for ‘stimulus independent thought’ – mind wandering. We can travel in space and time within the privacy of our minds, and irrespective of what we may be doing at the moment. Indeed it is believed that mind wandering is the default state for our brains.

And this is useful in many ways… ..of course it’s great to recall the enjoyment of a holiday season; and considering and planning for the future is essential to our existence. The issue, of course, is that our minds wander when we would rather they didn’t….and this can happen without us even realising it. Our thinking habits can hijack us without us realising, leading us to a place of distraction, or even worse, setting our minds onto a path of negativity, self-defeating and self-attacking thoughts.

On the one hand mind wandering can undermine our ability to be productive, at a deeper level it can lead us into unwanted mental states.

A quick brain game to illustrate the point

Perhaps in the 232 words you’ve read so far you have found your mind drifting to other things? Perhaps not. Either way, see what happens to your thinking when you slowly read through the following lines. Read each line in turn, on its own, and after each line take a moment to notice where your thoughts go, what conclusions you begin to draw, what you think the text is about.

It was Tim’s tenth wedding anniversary
The table was booked for 8 o’clock
He wasn’t looking forward to it
His wife is rubbish at snooker

So did your mind stay completely on the words you read, or did you find it serving up suggestions, assumptions or memories? Perhaps you have formed some thoughts on Tim, or even found yourself making plans for an anniversary gift?

Just how much do our minds wander?

The short answer to this question is: a lot.

There’s an excellent piece of research into mind wandering, which was done in 2010 by Matthew Kilingsworth and Daniel Gilbert (A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind, Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010, Science Vol 330). The core of the study was to look at mind wandering, being present and the impact on happiness. Over a period of months, and at random intervals and times of the day the volunteers in the study had three questions sent to them via their smartphones:

• How are you feeling?
• What are you doing?
• Are you thinking about something other than what you are doing?

Some 650,000 data samples were collected, from over 15,000 people. The results? In 47% of the samples people answered that their minds were on something other than what they were doing; and 50% of the time that people were at work their minds were on something else. The study also showed that we are less happy when our minds wander than when we stay in the moment. (You can get some more detail on the study by taking a look at the video presentation below this post).

Mind wandering occurs 47% of the time……
……and 50% of the time when at work

So, what is the impact on productivity if our minds are not focussed on the task at hand for half the time we are working? Bit of a productivity-killer isn’t it?

And what if you are a manager or business leader? What would be the business impact in reducing even a portion of this lost time from your teams?

Mindfulness – a way to help

If you have not come across the concept of mindfulness before now, a very quick summary for you….in the 1970s Jon Kabat-Zinn developed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR); based on Eastern philosophies and meditation practices, it proved extremely effective in treating a variety of traditionally hard to manage conditions such as stress. In the 1990s Mark Williams, Zindel Segal and John Teasdale developed Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) to help people who experience repeated, severe depression. MBCT has been shown to be at least as effective as anti-depressants.

The therapeutic benefits of mindfulness have been extensively investigated by the scientific community, and it has been proven to make structural changes to the brain, which result in:

• Reductions in stress, worrying and emotional reactivity
• Improvements to concentration, cognitive flexibility, self-awareness, resilience, creativity and wellbeing

The core idea behind mindfulness is to remain focused in the present moment: to take ownership of our brain, to prevent it operating on auto-pilot, leading us into habitual thinking patterns, and straying from where we would like our minds to be. We develop this ability through mindfulness meditation practices – which are exercises where we intentionally focus our minds on one thing for a period of time. A classic exercise is focusing on the sensation of breathing, noticing when the mind wanders away, bringing the attention back to the breath, and repeating this many times over the duration of the exercise.

It’s the repetition of such exercises that literally changes our brains. It has been demonstrated that as little as fifteen minutes’ quality practice per day over a period of six weeks is enough to see positive changes.

Becoming more mindful gives us the self-awareness to notice when our minds try to slip into their well-trodden thinking habits, and provides us with the ability to refocus. This leads us to positive outcomes including improved concentration and better performance of the task at hand and drastically reduced instances of mind wandering.

So is mindfulness a miracle, business cure-all?

Mindfulness is being increasingly applied within a range of different businesses, where it has been shown to deliver benefits from board room through to front line staff. Scientific research and real-life case studies have demonstrated that implementing mindful practices within the workplace delivers measureable results.

Now of course it’s not a magic pill to address all of our own and our company’s issues. However, the benefits to business are broad, which is why it’s something that more and more companies are investigating.

So if developing your creativity and resilience whilst managing stress and improving wellbeing isn’t enough for you to consider practicing mindfulness, or introducing it to your business, perhaps the opportunity for measureable productivity improvements might be?

Online Mindfulness Training

Take a look at our online mindfulness training for organisations and individuals