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Are you paying attention?

Your ability to pay attention and focus on what matters is important to help you to make some sort of impression on that massive to-do list that many of us face every day.

We berate ourselves for allowing ourselves to succumb to the allure of all those distractions on social media, get angry when others interrupt us wasting our precious time, and feel frustrated when we realise our mind has wandered yet again.

Depending on what you’re busy doing, your level of mind wandering will vary. Many scientists believe we spend around 48.7% of our time awake distracting ourselves with our thoughts.

But if this is normal, does that mean we’ve been looking at our level of inattention the wrong way?

What if mind wandering was not only normal but also extremely beneficial to our cognition and ability to adapt?
Perhaps you have experienced that car journey, where having driven to your destination you have no recollection of how you got there…

In his book, The Wandering Mind: What The Brain Does When You’re Not Looking; Michael C. Corballis discusses how mind wandering allows us to;

1. Plan our future based on our past and generate a sense of who we are.
2. Generate empathy and better social understanding of others.
3. Be more imaginative, creative, tell stories and expand what he calls our mental horizons.

The human brain isn’t designed for long-term focus. It chews up too much mental energy. When you’re not paying attention, your brain automatically switches to what is called the default mode network or DMN. This doesn’t mean your brain is lying down and having a little rest, far from it.

The purpose of the DMN appears to be a means to plan our future and to know how to respond or interact with others. Its involvement with our past in the form of memory appears key to help us determine what’s important when considering what comes next.

Putting this into the context of our work and life, so what?

The so what is that elevating thinking to develop what others have called “cognitive flexibility” comes from the understanding of, and choice of where to place your focus. While focus has the ability to push away distracting thoughts to stay attentive to the task at hand, uncoupling from focus allows your mind to explore and consider other thoughts. It’s a bit like choosing to pull off from the heavily congested freeway of conscious thought to take the scenic country route that allows you to navigate at a slower pace and enjoy the creative output of a quieter mind.

That’s why incorporating downtime into your mental routine is so important. The what you choose doesn’t matter; it’s about taking time out to spend in a green space, take a nap, exercise or simply sit staring out of the window lost in thought. This allows your brain the time it needs to think things through, create insight, come up with new ideas and feel mentally refreshed.

Psychologist Anders Ericsson believes we can only engage in a deliberate practice of focus for about an hour before needing timing out to recuperate. Top athletes and musical performers will typically practice for up to 3-4 hours and then call it a day.

While your boss might have a dose of the screaming ‘ebbey-jeebies,’ if you suggest you should only be working for 3-4 hours a day, taking time out across the day for several brain breaks of 15-20 minutes can be highly restorative, and your brain as you know of course isn’t “resting” during that time.

So how can you make mind wandering useful for you?

If you’re in a role that requires high levels of creativity, innovation, and consolidation of thought, giving yourself permission for a little mind wander might be just the thing.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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