You know how it goes. You’re working really well, everything is running smooth as silk, and then you begin to notice that you’re making little mistakes or your mind has suddenly switched to something different – what to cook for dinner, or what you’re going to do at the weekend. We all have the experience of finding our mind wandering from time to time. But why does this happen and what to do about it?
Ultradian rhythms and mind wandering
This is not a sign of a lazy mind or a lack of application. It is in fact a natural process. We are designed to work with good concentration for about 75-90 minutes and then to “switch off” for about 15-20 minutes. Taking a break every 90 minutes keeps you in line with the 90 minute ultradian rhythm, something which is important for mental clarity and well-being..
This cycle occurs in sleep, as well as during our waking hours, and is marked by the cycling of light sleep, deep sleep and REM (dreaming sleep). During the day the feeling of switching off marks a switch from left brain dominance to right brain dominance. The shorter right-brain phase is a time when we become more creative, but also when we “file away data,” processing memory and logging what we have done and said.
It’s possible to over-ride the right-brain phase. We all do it: drink some coffee or eat something sugary. And this is ok, if we only do it now and again. However if we constantly over-ride it, we start to become forgetful; we find it harder to think clearly and of course we become stressed.
Daydreaming can be good for you!
It is not unreasonable to expect to take a break about once every 90 minutes. During this time you can step away from your work, perhaps go for a short walk or do some stretching, or just gaze out of the window and let your mind wander. The sort of insights you get when you are in the shower or doing the washing up occur because you have nothing on your mind. So this slightly dozy 15-20 minutes is actually the perfect opportunity to let those insights arise in your mind as it wanders apparently aimlessly, without you making any attempt to keep it on-task.
Stopping now and again to give your mind a chance to wander can actually invigorate focus, says psychologist Paul Seli of Harvard University: “If you say to yourself, now I’m going to think about something unrelated, maybe problem-solve something else that is on your mind, and then come back to your task. That can definitely be beneficial.”
OK, so I still can’t stop my mind wandering
De-stressing is important too. You might think that an adrenaline boost would focus the mind, but stress actually stimulates the release of hormones which bind to receptors in neurones which help to control thinking. This in turn makes it harder for them to keep tabs on mind wandering.
Mindfulness meditation is actually a way of training your mind to notice when it is wandering and to bring it back to the desired focus of attention (such as the breath). Practicing mindfulness meditation won’t stop your mind from wandering, but it will make those periods of day dreaming shorter as you will notice them more quickly.
If you’re experiencing a lot of day dreaming, it may be worth thinking about whether there is anything you need to be doing for your health: Are you getting enough sleep? Are you resting enough? Are you respecting your ultradian rhythm? Ignoring signals from your mind and body is never good for your health. It can lead to anything from high blood pressure to IBS to chronic fatigue syndrome. This is a pattern I see every week in clinic.
If you prefer to over-ride your body’s need to rest and recharge, over and over and over again, then prepare for health problems in the future. Personally I prefer to listen to my body and take a break when it needs me to.
Sorrel Pindar, Health Coach & Registered Osteopath
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