If you’re overwhelmed, you’re not alone. Even before the pandemic, 60 percent of adults in the United States reported sometimes feeling too busy to enjoy life, according to a report from the Pew Research Center, and 52 percent said they were usually trying to do at least two things at once.
Some experts say the antidote is free and accessible to anyone willing to try it: setting aside some time to let your mind wander.
This practice has been portrayed recently as “doing nothing,” thanks in part to Olga Mecking’s 2020 book “Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing.” But if the idea of trying to squeeze time to do nothing into an already packed schedule sounds more stressful than soothing, fear not. According to Erik Dane, an associate professor of organizational behavior in the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, doing nothing doesn’t necessarily mean simply staring out the window (although it can).
“From a biological and a psychological standpoint, we’re almost never doing nothing,” Dane said. He and other experts believe that simply slowing down enough to give your mind a chance to wander and reflect can be all the “nothingness” you need to feel less harried.
Mind-wandering refers to thoughts that pop up spontaneously that aren’t connected to the task at hand or our surroundings, Dane said. “For example, memories bubble up, or we find ourselves anticipating any number of future states of affairs.” Given our busy lives, however, we often have to create an environment conducive to setting our minds free.
How this is done can vary from person to person, and even from day-to-day. Elisabeth Netherton, a psychiatrist and regional medical director with Houston-based Mindpath Health, said the main steps are to avoid responding to distractions or focusing on any specific task. “The whole goal is to shift into more of a reflective space,” she said. “It’s not even so much driven by what you’re actually doing but by the head space you’re in.”
One of the most attractive aspects of mind-wandering is its simplicity — something that many of us are craving as coronavirus restrictions continue to loosen and life resumes a more normal pace. If the self-care practices that fit your lifestyle during the earlier periods of the pandemic no longer make sense as your calendar fills up, creating a practice of allowing your mind to wander and reflect is an excellent low-key way to “refresh your toolbox,” Netherton said.
According to Moshe Bar, a professor of neuroscience at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv and the author of “Mindwandering: How Your Constant Mental Drift Can Improve Your Mood and Boost Your Creativity,” mind-wandering is essential to creativity and problem-solving. “This is how good ideas are born,” he said. When we reflect on memories, imagine what could have happened or how a certain scenario could play out in the future, our brains store this information the same way they do a real experience. And just as our actual experiences inform our future decisions and ideas, so can these simulations, Bar said.
This is borne out by research. According to a 2017 metastudy, mind-wandering enhances creativity and may play a significant part in problem-solving and learning. Dane and his colleagues found that for professionals, “problem-oriented daydreaming,” or conjuring thoughts that pertained in some way to the challenges they faced, could be particularly effective in helping them solve problems.
Experiments that Bar and his colleagues conducted suggest that the less stressed we are, the further our minds can roam. The experiments also suggest that in the absence of significant cognitive demands, original thinking is our “default setting.” When subjects were given a free-association task while being asked simultaneously to perform cognitive tasks of varying levels of difficulty, there was inverse relationship between mental load and the creativity of their responses. For example, those who had to memorize seven digits gave more predictable responses, while those who had to memorize two digits responded more creatively.
Because mind-wandering promotes creativity, it can also have a positive effect on mood. The more creative you are, the more joy you can experience, and vice versa, Bar said. And both your mood and your level of creativity can enhance — and are enhanced by — the breadth of your thoughts and your openness to experience. Bar called these factors “a cluster that moves together.”
On the other hand, when your mind maintains a more narrow focus between similar thoughts, mind-wandering becomes rumination. And while some degree of rumination is normal, when it becomes chronic, it can lead to depression and anxiety, Bar said.
Mind-wandering can also invite opportunities for serendipity and awe. “The world around us is filled with clues, opportunities and possibilities,” Dane said, but we can take advantage of them only “if we’re able to loosen ourselves from the grip of autopilot.” One way to do that is maybe to put our phones aside; one study found that the mere presence of participants’ phones limited their cognitive resources, creating a “brain drain.” While putting your phone down doesn’t guarantee you’ll experience an epiphany, it can help create the right conditions.
Allowing our minds to wander can also give us opportunities to process emotions, Netherton said. Some of her patients keep their brains busy to avoid certain feelings, which then come flooding out when their minds slow down. Providing some time for introspection during the day can help manage those emotions and reduce anxiety. While mind-wandering has been linked to increased anxiety and depression, the results of a 2019 study suggest that intentional mind-wandering can mitigate anxiety, depression and stress.
Counterintuitively, mind-wandering may also help us get more done. While we’d never expect our bodies to run all day long, Mecking said, “we somehow expect our brains to be on 24/7.” The high value society places on productivity means we often keep working even when we notice ourselves slowing down or making mistakes. But by preventing such issues, taking breaks might make us more productive. Meanwhile, Dane points out that if our minds never strayed from the current task, we wouldn’t remember the other tasks we need to complete. Research shows a link between mind-wandering and the fulfillment of goals.
The way you go about doing nothing or encouraging your mind to wander matters a lot less than the mind-set you bring to the practice, Netherton says. It shouldn’t be something you feel you have to grit your teeth and endure. Rather, she suggests simply “letting your mind have more freedom.”
Avoid multitasking. “Many people essentially celebrate multitasking itself. And so they might actually feel like they’re doing nothing if they only uni-task,” Dane said. When clients insist they’re too busy to do one thing at a time, he compares the results of uni-tasking to the results of exercise. Generally, exercise energizes us, even if we’re tired before we begin. Similarly, when we’re “in the midst of stormy real life,” stepping away and slowing down allows us to later “engage more thoughtfully and patiently and in a calm manner as we’re being bombarded by stimuli again.”
Put your phone down. While we know our phones make it hard, if not impossible, to focus fully on the task at hand, their frequent intrusions have another, less-talked-about downside: keeping our minds from drifting far and wide enough to be “awash in really rich, imaginative, depthful thinking,” Dane said.
Engage your hands. Mecking says doing “something that keeps your hands busy but not stressed out” can help you get in the right frame of mind. A repetitive task such as crocheting or weeding can work, as long as you’re not under pressure to complete it.
Let go of goals. Whatever you do, it can’t be goal-oriented. For example, running could be an excellent way to let your mind zone out if your intention is simply to feel good and get some exercise, Mecking says. On the other hand, if you’re doing a specific workout in preparation for a race and paying close attention to your watch and your effort level, running wouldn’t qualify.
Similarly, driving can offer a chance for your mind to relax — or not. “The morning commute that’s like, ‘Oh my God, I’m late, I’ve got to careen through Starbucks and get back on the highway and traffic’s awful and I’m gritting my teeth,’ is a totally different head space than ‘I have 30 minutes to sit on the highway or sit on the subway and not have to engage in anything,’ ” Netherton said.
Make a (gentle) commitment to the practice. While there’s no consensus on exactly how often and how frequently you should engage in the practice of mind-wandering, everyone I spoke to emphasized the importance of making it part of your daily routine — or at least trying to. According to Mecking, doing nothing shouldn’t be yet another stress-inducing obligation. “I don’t think there’s a way people can fail at doing nothing.”
If guilt is keeping you from easing off the gas pedal, it might make sense to reexamine your values. “Because people value productivity and hard work,” Mecking said, “they feel very, very bad when they do nothing. But what if we started to value free time and leisure, relaxation and doing nothing?”