Emergency: Your Mind Is Now Wandering


Emergency: Your Mind Is Now Wandering



Chip Grossman 

We’re in the midst of an emergency. A 2010 HBR study found that the average human spends 47% of their wakeful hours with a wandering mind. As it turns out, this mind wandering could be crushing your happiness level (Source: Harvard).

You can think of mind wandering as any time where you’re lost in thought while at the same time being unaware that you’re lost in thought. Mind wandering is what happens when we’re driving somewhere and we arrive without much recollection of how the drive actually was. Mind wandering is when someone is talking to you and you don’t hear what that person says because you were too busy thinking about something in your own head. Sound familiar? Sure does to me..

Here’s the interesting part: that same 2010 HBR study found that mind wandering is highly correlated to levels of unhappiness.

Happiness is a relative term; it’s based on how we perceive our world. Our thoughts are what’s largely responsible for our perceptions. So having a sharp mind that’s hard-wired for thinking positively is in my mind the most important thing to living a fulfilling life.

I say this because I’ve seen both sides. I know the side that I was at seven years ago, and I compare that to where I am today. Seven years ago I was scatterbrained and extremely anxious. My anxiety was so bad because of how much my mind wandered. Mind wandering tends to take us down rabbit holes of thinking, and unfortunately those rabbit holes aren’t usually particularly positive.

Mind wandering impacts every aspect of life. Take sports for example. Back when I was a teenager, my mind wandering had a big impact on my sports performance. Whether it was practice, or a game, my active mind often took me out of the moment. I would be thinking about the play I just messed up, or how high stakes the situation was, or whether or not coach would start me in the next game. All the while I was completely unaware that I was thinking. I would even think about whether or not I was going to catch a pass while it was in the air! I was often focusing outside of the present moment, and this always resulted in sub-optimal performance.

It’s not our fault that our minds tend to think so much. We are, due to evolution, hardwired to think about the future and past. It helped us survive by reflecting on our mistakes and planning how we were going to get food or find shelter that was safe from predators.

The problem with all this thinking, though, is that most of it isn’t beneficial to us. This is due to what’s called a negativity bias. A negativity bias means that our brains are hardwired to think negatively more so than positively. That’s not to say that there aren’t some people out there who’s brains are naturally oriented to be positive; I’m simply coming from a perspective that my brain isn’t that way and I’ve talked to hundreds of other people who are in the same boat as me.

“So what does this negativity bias mean, Chip?”

I’m so glad you asked! What this negativity bias means is that, when our minds are wandering, they tend to be lost in thought about things that aren’t positive. Here’s an example from a girl, we’ll call her Kate, who has a difficult teammate:

“Cameron is always late”

While Cameron may always be late, the question is whether or not that thought is helpful for Kate. What does a thought like this often lead to? Well, Misery loves company. One negative thought tends to lead to another, and another, and another.

“Cameron is always late. I wish that she wasn’t on my team. Why did I get stuck with her? I always have this kind of luck. I wish she would just stop being so annoying. I want to tell her off. She’s so terrible to deal with”.

Pretty quickly, Kate’s mind wandering led her down a rabbit hole of negativity. That negativity isn’t good for our lives, in my opinion. Those negative thoughts lead to us experiencing negative emotions, like anger. There’s a time and a place to be angry, but many people get angry more than they need to. When we experience anger on a frequent basis, it’s not good for us. Aside from making one unpleasant to be around, anger on a frequently occurring basis is bad for health. It causes cortisol and adrenaline to run through the body, which over time breaks your body down. Anger is just one example; too much of certain emotions (i.e. sadness, fear, etc.) is not conductive to us living happy lives.

To clarify, I don’t intend to say that all mind wandering is bad; a little bit of mind wandering can be great for creativity. It’s important to have some mental capacity go towards mind wandering,

The problem with mind wandering is the dark places that is takes us too when we aren’t aware of it.

“So mind wandering is causing unhappiness. What can we do about it?”

Ah, so glad you asked! Fortunately for us, there is a cure to mind wandering. That cure is attention training. Attention training helps one develop the ability to pay more attention. With more attention you listen more to what the other person is saying in a conversation. You notice the sounds of the birds chirping more often. You notice what it feels like to press the gas pedal and turn the steering wheel in your car as opposed to arriving at your destination without remembering the drive. Basically, you experience more present moment sensations.

Attention training is a lot like going to the gym, but for the brain. If you go to the gym once a week, you’ll be stronger than if you didn’t go at all, but not by much. If you go to the gym three days a week, you’ll definitely make some gains. But if you go seven days a week, even if just for a few minutes, you’ll be looking great. It’s the same thing with attention training. My recommendation is to actively train your attention as often as you can, as that will bring you the best results.

“How do I train my attention?”

You train your attention with practice in mindfulness meditation. Meditation, when broken down to its simplest form, is attention training. You train your mind to pay attention to the sensations of the breath and the body. By directing your attention on these physical sensations, all that attention that had been in your mind is re-directed to the present moment. You stop thinking so much because you’re focusing on physical feelings. Your mind goes where your attention goes, so it’s important to be deliberate with how you go about it.

So the best thing to do is to train your attention seven days a week. You don’t have to give much time each day, you can start small. I meditate about 10-15 minutes each morning (if you want some guided meditations, I recommend you download Headspace and try their free 10 day trial). But along with that, I meditate throughout the day using micro practices. Micro practices are short, and don’t take more than 20 seconds. You can do them anywhere! I was at a boat party in Charleston yesterday and I used one specific micro practice at least 15 times throughout the day, especially when I noticed myself getting stressed. Below I’ll provide an easy micropractice you can try:

3 breath micropractice: Mind, Emotions, Body. Note: for each of these three breaths, take a deep inhale and a deep exhale

  • Breath 1: Focus your attention on your mind. What are you thinking about?
  • Breath 2: Focus your attention on your emotional experience. What emotions are you experiencing?
  • Breath 3: Scan our body for physical sensations. What physical sensations can you notice in your body?

With just a few mindful breaths each day, over time you’ll start to see a big difference in the way you think.


  • We’re in the midst of an attention span emergency. Mind wandering takes away from the present moment experience and tends to lead to unhappy thoughts.

  • Attention training is the cure to mind wandering. By training our attention, we learn to pay more attention to what’s going on inside and around us. As we develop this skill, our mind naturally wanders less.

  • There is a methodological approach to training attention, and that is mindfulness meditation. The more often you practice mindfulness meditation, the stronger your attention will be.

  • You can practice meditation with longer practices (i.e. 10 minutes) and with micro practices. Micro practices are easy to use in everyday life.Below is one you can use:

    • Breath 1: What are you thinking about?

    • Breath 2: What emotions are you experiencing?

    • Breath 3: What physical sensations can you notice in your body?


Thanks for reading!



Chip Grossman


Source: http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/11/wandering-mind-not-a-happy-mind/