Want to Focus on Your Goals? Let Your Mind Wander

Latin woman, daydreaming behind her laptop at work. Focus is on her eyes.

Most lifehack-type advice revolves around telling you to focus: spend ten minutes a day on your to-do list. Visualize and actualize your goals. Be more and more and more organized. That is probably why people tend to assume that if their mind is wandering, they’re just wool-gathering and wasting time. It turns out that may not be true, and that letting your mind wander while you’re reading that brief or driving to the office might help you refine your goals.

A recent study asked people to write for fifteen minutes about their goals, then complete a sequence-matching task where they were interrupted so the researchers could check their attentiveness. When they were done, they wrote for fifteen minutes again.

A comparison of the pre- and post-task writing samples, in conjunction with self-reports of attentiveness during the cognitive task, revealed that higher levels of mind-wandering were associated with an increase in the concreteness and specificity of goal descriptions from the pre- to post-task writing samples.

Translation: the more someone’s mind wandered, the more specific their goals became, which at first glance is the opposite of what you might expect. But when you think about the fact that long-term seemingly outrageous goals require both a lot of dreaming and a lot of planning, it makes sense.

Although acting in the moment satisfies many of our primary needs, important achievements—such as constructing the pyramids or landing on the moon—involve the capacity to represent things that could be the case, allowing the generation of a series of steps that can make imagined scenarios come about.

Next time you feel like you need to sit down with a bullet journal or a timer or some other trick to do some goal-setting, maybe just don’t. Take a long walk, read a book that doesn’t require your full attention, play a video game where you already know all the moves–anything that will allow your brain to disconnect just a bit. It just might help you figure out your next big move.

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  • Neal Huffman

    agree. i do this anyway and didn’t realize there was science behind it. who is it that makes us worry about staying focused?