The Productive Power of the Wandering Mind

Why Focus and Mindfulness are Only Half of the Formula for Productivity

Over the past few years, there has been an intense emphasis on both focusing and mindfulness in productivity writing. And certainly both of those things are important.

But what if I told you that focus and mindfulness are only half of the story when it comes to doing really good knowledge work?

What if I encouraged you to step away from your defined work for one hour and let your mind wander? And what if told you that in doing that, you could drastically improve the quality of your ideas, the quality of your work, and your productivity?

You might call me crazy. And you would not be the first. But bear with me.

We’re Thinking of Work in the Wrong Way

Modern work places a heavy psychological load upon us. An ever-increasing portion of jobs require largely cognitive tasks than physical ones — especially in developed and developing countries. But our idea of what work looks like has not caught up with that change.

By and large, we still view work through the lens of manufacturing, where you have to be moving or straining in order to be doing real work. But for most of us, that is just plain wrong.

Real work involves thinking, coming up with ideas, connecting concepts, developing strategy, thinking through alternative plans. None of that work involves physical movement. It is mental work, and it requires a different approach.

The Brain’s Two Networks

The mind has two modes of working, referred to as networks. They are defined as:

  • Task-positive Network
    The network in your brain that is engaged when you are doing a specific piece of focused work. As I write this piece, it’s my Task-positive Network that’s lit up.
  • Default Mode Network (aka “task-negative Network)
    The network engaged when you unfocus from specific work — when you let your mind wander. Think of it as the network that runs your mind when you’re in the shower, kind of decompressing — “the shower mind” if you will.

The conventional wisdom seems to be this: the real value is created when people engage their Task-positive Networks — when they focus and concentrate. We shape our goals around that way of thinking. But by thinking this way, we have severely devalued letting our minds wander as part of our work. We allow it to happen, but it’s seen as a “break” — not part of the mental work that helps us produce great ideas and boost our productivity.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

Contrary to our popular notions, when we’re decidedly unfocused, there’s a lot of valuable stuff going on:

When you unfocus, you engage a brain circuit called the “default mode network.”…
[The DMN] is doing anything but resting. Under the brain’s conscious radar, it activates old memories, goes back and forth between the past, present, and future, and recombines different ideas. Using this new and previously inaccessible data, you develop enhanced self-awareness and a sense of personal relevance. And you can imagine creative solutions or predict the future, thereby leading to better decision-making too. The DMN also helps you tune into other people’s thinking, thereby improving team understanding and cohesion.

The fact is, for all of the current enthusiasm for mindfulness, little is being written on behalf of the wandering mind. But letting your mind wander regularly is actually a great habit to get into. It fosters creativity, innovation, and strategy. It brings real value by refreshing and altering your thinking.

Use Your Brain’s Other Network

I’ve written before about the virtues of thinking differently, but I’m not the first to do so.

In order to bring more value in the work you do, you need to think differently. In order to to think differently, you need to think differently about the process of thinking.

The process of thinking is not just focused effort on one topic, and it’s not just “being in the moment”. It also involves mind-wandering, daydreaming, and letting go of control of your mind for periods of time. Doing that engages the Default Mode Network in your brain. That allows you to do the kind of higher-level, outside-of-the-box thinking that produce real value in the long-term.

So my challenge to you this week is this: set aside an hour, or 3o minutes. Put away the computers, phones, pens and paper. Allow your mind to just wander. Don’t force it to focus, don’t wrangle it in. See where it goes, allow yourself to get excited or affected by what comes to mind. When you’re done — if something sticks with you — record it. If not, no worries. You’ve still done some work — you engaged that network, and primed it for further activity.

Do this as regularly as you can. I promise you, after some period of practice, you will notice a change in your ability to think of and develop ideas. It’s as close to a sure thing as I’ve ever found in knowledge work.

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