The Importance of Mind-Wandering

When I am insanely busy during the academic year, I relish the time before I fall asleep, as time I can think about anything at all. If it’s productive and interesting, I’ll stay awake. If not, well, then I won’t waste much time before I conk out.

In an attempt to carve out enouth time to mark papers on time and read articles that interest me, I’ve taken to text-to-mp3 software (which let me listen to student proposals and progress reports — anything I don’t need to evaluate for punctuaion accuracy) and the text-to-speech function of my Kindle. I even adust the words-per-mintue rate to shave time off of long texts.

At the moment, I still have a few items to complete before I’m really done with the semester, but some of those things are also related to my summer projects. For the last couple years, I have marked AP English tests this time of year, but I’m not doing that this time around. Instead, I find myself doing little but thinking for a few days — good thinking, deep thinking, what-if thinking; and then extended bursts (10-12 hours) where I act on those thoughts, doing service- and maintenance-oriented things I’ve put off.  I’m not sure I’m being more productive, or less; it’s just a different rhythm.

This article made me think about my summer work habits. The joy that I felt when I read this article makes me suspicious, since I’m very aware of big projects that aren’t getting done, and the potential that isn’t being reached, as I revel in the freedom to dawdle.

Brodsky was right. The secret isn’t boredom per se: It’s how boredom makes us think. When people are immersed in monotony, they automatically lapse into a very special form of brain activity: mind-wandering. In a culture obsessed with efficiency, mind-wandering is often derided as a lazy habit, the kind of thinking we rely on when we don’t really want to think. (Freud regarded mind-wandering as an example of “infantile” thinking.) It’s a sign of procrastination, not productivity.

In recent years, however, neuroscience has dramatically revised our views of mind-wandering. For one thing, it turns out that the mind wanders a ridiculous amount.  —The Importance of Mind-Wandering.