Daydreaming need not be the enemy of focus. Learn to do it right and you could reap the benefits from more successful revision to more motivation
By Caroline Williams
YOUR exams start in less than a month. Or there’s that make-or-break meeting next week that you need to prepare for. But no matter how hard you try to focus, you just can’t. The clock is ticking, but the sun is shining and, oh, is that a barbecue you can smell?
If losing concentration sometimes feels inevitable, that’s because it is – your brain is hardwired to give in to distractions and take you away with the fairies. To make matters worse, science has long backed up the idea that a wandering mind is the enemy of productivity. Failing to focus has been linked to lack of success, unhappiness, stress and poor relationships. It’s enough to make you give up and head for the beach you were just daydreaming about.
But don’t. Recently, psychologists have been having a rethink. If we spend so much time in a state of reverie, they reason, it’s probably not some psychological mistake. It turns out that there are several kinds of mind-wandering, and they don’t all make you unhappy or unproductive. A wandering mind could even be a key weapon in your cognitive arsenal – if you know how to use it.
To master mind-wandering, you first need to understand what’s happening in the brain when you try to pay attention. Broadly speaking, we have two attention systems that constantly keep track of what’s going on around us. One, the bottom-up system, snaps our focus to anything that stimulates the senses: a loud noise, an email notification or someone tapping
Give your mind more to do: Research by Nilli Lavie at University College London has found that adding deliberate distractions – a jazzy border on a page or a bit of background noise – actually reduces distractibility. Her “load theory” proposes this works because attention is a limited resource, so if you fill all the attentional “slots” in your mind, it leaves no room for other distractions.
2. Bribe yourself
The prospect of a treat can keep people focused, but only when it is well-timed, studies show. Offering people small rewards throughout a boring task didn’t stop them from losing focus, but the promise of a larger reward that they would receive at the end of the task kept them alert. This approach probably works best with an accomplice to keep you from caving early, says Michael Esterman, at the Boston Attention and Learning Laboratory, who did the research. “It’s hard to fool yourself.”
Stopping every now and again to give your mind a chance to wander can 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,” he says.
You might think that an adrenaline boost would focus the mind, but stress actually stimulates the release of hormones, including noradrenaline, which bind to receptors in the cognitive control circuits. This in turn makes it harder for them to keep tabs on mind wandering.
6. Get some zeds A lack of sleep hammers mental performance in general, andreduces our abilityto resist both internal and external distractions. And there’s an added bonus – sleep is also important for memory consolidation. In fact, recent research suggests that if you have an hour spare before an exam, a nap could be amore effective use of your timethan spending it revising.
In one study, people forced to listen to a boring voice recording were able to remember more afterwards if they were allowed to doodle. But content is important. Doodling about something related to what you are trying to remember is more likely to qualify as intentional mind wandering, which can help you focus on the task at hand. Don’t be too elaborate, however – if your doodles become too engaging, the whole thing might backfire