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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Jun 10, 2022


Mind wandering might actually be useful after all.



Welcome to episode 141 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we bring research to life in your leadership. This week we explore how mind wandering can help us at work.

Mind wandering is usually viewed negatively. We typically view mind wandering as a failure to maintain focus, taking us away from something to which we should be paying attention. However, mind wandering may not be quite as bad as we thought. As I’ve shared before, it’s often in those mind wandering states that we come up with out best ideas. We’re not really designed to operate for long periods of time with extreme focus on one thing. Research by Wong, Willoughby and Machado published just this month helps to shed more light on how mind wandering tendencies might help us. 

Researchers found those with higher spontaneous mind wandering could handle forced switching between tasks far more effectively, transferring their attention to the new tasks faster than others.

We know human beings are pretty bad at multitasking on similar tasks. So while we can probably walk and chew gum, we are less effective at having a phone conversation while scrolling our Instagram feed. What our brain does instead is to switch between tasks, moving attention back and forth between the two activities. That takes time and energy. If we’re constantly switching, there’s going to be a drop in productivity. 

As a result, we might try to focus on one thing at a time. But there are moments in every day that require us to shift our attention rapidly for reasons outside our control. For example, someone might come to us with an urgent query. Being able to shift rapidly from one task to another is called cognitive flexibility, and that’s exactly what those with mind wandering tendencies appear to be better at. 

Focus serves a purpose, and so does allowing our mind to wander. Perhaps we need to think about mind wandering as a skill that can be developed. Scheduling some down-time for your brain to wander across a range of spontaneous ideas could well help you to switch between tasks more effectively.



Yi-Sheng Wong, Adrian R. Willoughby, Liana Machado (2022) Spontaneous mind-wandering tendencies linked to cognitive flexibility in young adults, Consciousness and Cognition, Volume 102, July 2022.