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Using Mindfulness to Retrain Our Wandering Minds

by Will Graebe |

We spend an enormous amount of time thinking about something other than what we are doing in the present moment. It is called mind-wandering and can be detrimental to our happiness and well-being.  A 2010 study by Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert, discovered that the average person’s mind wanders 47% of the time (https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.1192439). The study also found that, when people think about something other than what they are doing in the present moment, they tend to be less happy. Other studies have shown that mind-wandering and a lack of focus on a task can also lead to mistakes.

But not all mind-wandering is necessarily bad. Certain kinds of intentional or guided mind-wandering can improve creativity and lead to states of relaxation in the brain. However, when mind-wandering results in rumination and obsessive thinking or catastrophizing, as it often does, this can lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression. So, how do we tame our wandering minds and how do we distinguish good mind-wandering from bad? The answer may be found in the practice of mindfulness.

One of the obstacles to retraining our brains to avoid harmful mind-wandering is the fact that we often are not even aware that our mind has wandered from the task at hand. By the time we notice that our thoughts have strayed, we are already deep in rumination or obsessive thinking. The damage is done. We need to find a way to stop the drifting mind before it gets to that point. To do that, we need to be able to pay attention to our thoughts. In other words, we need to be mindful of the present moment.

The practice of mindfulness is intentionally paying attention to the present moment without judgment. By purposefully paying attention to the present moment, we can catch ourselves when we are going down the rabbit hole of worry and anxious thoughts. As with any pattern of behavior that we want to change, we must rewire our brains. Rewiring the brain involves changing our focal attention and experience. Every time we notice that our mind has drifted to worry or anxiety, we stop and notice and then bring our focal attention back to the present moment. By doing this over and over, our brains will abandon the old neural networks and create new neural pathways and new patterns of behavior. Over time, you will begin to notice that you have improved focus on the present moment and less unnecessary worry and anxiety.

Here are five practices that you can incorporate into your daily routine to increase your present moment awareness, while still allowing for productive mind-wandering:

  1. Develop a daily meditation practice. Studies have shown that a consistent meditation practice increases our daily mindfulness. In other words, by meditating regularly, we increase our tendency to be present for each moment in our day and we decrease mind-wandering. There is no magic number for how long we must meditate to get these benefits. Meditation practitioners typically suggest at least 10 minutes a day. However, the more important factor appears to be consistency.
  2. Use an alarm or reminder at specified intervals throughout the day that prompts you to notice whether you are focused on the present moment or lost in thought. There are reminder apps and bracelets that you can use for this. As pointed out above, we often do not even notice when our minds have wandered. A reminder app or gadget can give us that awareness to come back to the present moment.
  3. Take breaks throughout your day. Neuroscientist Amishi Jha suggests that our minds often wander because of information overload. By taking breaks in our day, we give the mind a rest and increase our ability to focus on the task at hand.
  4. Set aside time in your day for intentional/guided mind-wandering. This could be when you are taking a shower in the morning or in the middle of the afternoon when you are feeling mentally drained. When you are allowing your mind to wander, it is important to notice if you are drifting toward ruminating or catastrophizing thoughts. If you are, simply notice that without judgment and resume the process.
  5. Use the power of your breath to bring you back to presence. Develop a habit of periodically taking deep breaths throughout your day. When we take deep inhales and exhales, we engage our parasympathetic nervous system. This takes us out of fight, freeze, or flight mode and relaxes our mind and body. By intentionally practicing deep breathing over time, this becomes a habit that can help bring us back to the present moment.


About the Author

Will Graebe

Will Graebe came to Lawyers Mutual in 1998 as claims counsel. In 2009, Will became the Vice President of the Claims Department and served in that role until 2019. After a two-year sabbatical, Will returned to Lawyers Mutual as claims counsel and relationship manager. In his role as claims counsel, Will focuses primarily on claims related to estates and trusts, business transactions and real estate matters. Will received his J.D. from Wake Forest University School of Law and his undergraduate degree from Stetson University. Prior to joining Lawyers Mutual, will worked in private practice with the law firm of Pinna, Johnston & Burwell.  

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