The Pros and Cons of Mind Wandering

Best-selling author Daniel Goleman explains how leaders can corral drifting thoughts into a positive force.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, "Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body," is available now. 

Do you ever become so caught up in thinking about what you’re going to say at a meeting that you can’t focus on what others have to say? Do you find that your best ideas come to you while you’re in the shower or on a walk–not during times you’re concentrating on work

These represent, respectively, the bad and the good of mind wandering.

The negative kind often takes the form of rumination, where the same worried thoughts repeat over and over in our mind. (Why didn’t she answer my email?). Anxiety can make us more susceptible to such useless worry, to the point it impairs our concentration. Research in Emotion, a journal of the American Psychological Association, found that such over-worry damages our ability to accomplish tasks and achieve goals, largely because worry is mentally taxing. When we get caught in a loop of negative thoughts, we deplete the cognitive resources we need for high performance. After all, it’s much harder to focus on preparing a presentation for investors when you’re still hyper-analyzing an interaction with your boss this morning.   

An antidote to such worry-driven distractions can be found in the emotional intelligence competence called emotional balance. This lets us recover from emotional triggers, and in tandem with emotional self-awareness, lets us recognize our rocky feelings as they occur. Result: we can stay relaxed and clear-headed even in stressful situations. One way to strengthen the brain circuitry for this is a regular practice of mindfulness, which I began during college as a way to calm my own jitters. Meditation remains an important part of my life, key to helping me maintain my own emotional balance. Even setting aside just a few minutes each morning to focus on your breath–when you first wake up, while sitting with a cup of tea, or in the car before you walk to the office–can make it easier to recover from setbacks throughout the day.      

Instincts that once helped our ancestors survive the hidden dangers of life in the wilderness have little value now. But the same brain circuitry that spotted threats so well in the wild can trigger a surge of worry in response to the changes and uncertainty that work and life inevitably bring us. Our company’s impending merger or our child’s moodiness as they enter adolescence can generate a cycle of rumination. Uncertainty and change in themselves can become worry triggers. On a neurological level, this reflects inefficient filtering of threat signals, where our brain over-reacts with worry to ordinary changes. And an overabundance of such threatening triggers makes it hard to focus on whatever actually requires our attention. 

But not all mind wandering is negative. Mind wandering of a different sort can stimulate creativity, so vital to innovation. The brain’s left prefrontal cortex enables us to concentrate on a task. But to do our most creative work–and this may be counter-intuitive–we need to let go of our concentration and make time for mind wandering (or “spacing out”). When possible, developing a creative project over several days or even weeks, gives us time to process new ideas and solutions while we’re not intentionally focused on the task. This activates parts of the brain that can make far more connections than the circuitry that concentrates. The neural activity associated with these connections mainly occurs in temporal area, near the right neocortex.

Unlike rumination–where we fixate on a worry and become caught in an unproductive cycle of thoughts–creative mind wandering lets us expand our thinking. Spending time on undemanding tasks, such as taking a shower or going for a walk, has been found to facilitate creative incubation. This is when we’re most likely to have an “a-ha!” moment or creative breakthrough. But then, to execute that great idea, we need to the focused zone of the pre-frontal cortex.

In the workplace, ensuring employees have a “creative cocoon”–time to let their minds wander and explore multiple creative solutions—is one of the ways leaders can foster creativity on their teams. And to negate the bad kind of mind wandering, leaders can deploy team mindfulness. By practicing mindfulness–on a team or individually–we can better manage our difficult emotions, including anxiety, and allow our creativity to flourish. 


Click here to learn about Daniel Goleman’s facilitated online courses.