It might seem counter-intuitive, but allowing your mind to wander may be a great approach if you are struggling to focus. There is a growing realization among psychologists that we spend an awful lot of time daydreaming – almost 50% of the time by some measures. This has led some psychologists to suggest that mind wandering is not so much a glitch, but rather a key part of the system itself that can help our brains function.
Looking at the brain itself can help to reveal that our focus wanes for a good reason. Concentration requires a network of brain regions including the frontal cortex, which is responsible for resisting distractions and controlling our natural impulse to do something more fun. Keeping this network functioning requires more energy than the group of brain regions that are active when we are thinking about nothing in particular. Inevitably, at some point during the day, we run out of steam and that’s when mind wandering kicks in.
So if it’s going to happen, then why not schedule it at a convenient time?
Giving yourself permission to think about anything but work not only takes the guilt out of mind wandering, it also helps tick a few things off the mental to-do list that caused the mind wandering in the first place.
Funny cat videos are often seen as the ultimate distraction for procrastinators, but some psychologists think that they might actually help put us in the right mental state to get on with work.
This is because, no matter how much you love your job, staying focused on something difficult requires willpower. According to a recent study, a good way to boost your reserves of willpower is to have a good laugh. In experiments, people who had watched a funny video tried longer and harder to complete an impossible puzzle than a control group of people who watched a video that was relaxing but not funny. The study concluded that humor replenishes our reserves so effectively that workplaces should encourage a more “playful” culture.
Take a break
When you’re up against it, taking a break might be the last thing on your mind. But there is a huge amount of evidence to suggest it can actually help you get more done. The challenge is working out when to take a break, for how long, and what to do with that downtime.
Some studies dating from the 1990s suggest that due to natural variations in our cycle of alertness, we can concentrate for no longer than 90 minutes before needing a 15-minute break.
Other studies have found that even a micro-break of a few seconds will work, provided it is a total distraction – in the studies, people did a few seconds of mental arithmetic, so you may have to do something more intense than staring out of the window.
Exercise is a good thing to do in with your break, as it seems to rev up the brain, putting it into a better state to knuckle back down, particularly, according to this study, if you follow it with a caffeinated drink. Take your exercise outdoors and get a further boost – spending time in nature has long been suspected to improve people’s ability to focus.
Meditation is another option. There is growing evidence that experienced meditators have better control over their attention resources than non-meditators and are much better at noticing when it’s time for a break.
If that all sounds a bit time-consuming, the good news is that, with or without exercise, a quick dose of caffeine improves memory, reaction time and attention in the short term. So however you choose to take your break, always stop to put the kettle on as you make your way back to your desk.