Where'd you put your keys again?
Ever walk into a room and forget why you entered? Or completely space out during an important meeting at work? As frustrating as it is, experts say it's actually normal.
Your brain is naturally primed to wander whenever it can, according to a joint study by Harvard University, Dartmouth College, and the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. Using MRI, researchers found that brain regions responsible for "task-unrelated thought" (that is, daydreaming or mind wandering) are almost constantly active when the brain is at rest or performing a task that doesn't require concentration.
Fortunately, brain experts say it's possible to corral that brainpower, filter out distractions, and master any task by improving your concentration. Here are their top tips for refocusing during key moments when your mind starts meandering—but shouldn't.
Unless you love everything about your job, you're bound to zone out occasionally, according to one study: Among 124 people, mind wandering occurred about 30 percent of the time, even during crucial tasks—adding up to many hours of lost productivity. Boredom, fatigue, and stress all spur mind wandering, says study author Michael Kane, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
And although women were no more likely than men to lose focus, they reported general worrying and anxiety when their attention drifted. Fear not: Some mind wandering is simply your brain taking a healthy break, although sometimes it's best left for another occasion.
Here's what to do about it...
If you have several to-dos, decide what to tackle first, and clear all other projects off your desk and computer screen. "Out of sight, out of mind applies," Kane says. "Get rid of memos, e-mails, and anything else that reminds you you're behind."
And go easy on your cubicle's decor. "Even family photos are potential thought stealers," Kane adds, because they're people you're prone to worry about.
If you daydream during meetings, challenge yourself by thinking of questions and actively joining the discussion, suggests Jonathan W. Schooler, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. You may miss a moment if you're formulating a question, but you'll stay focused on the current topic.
Change your scenery
When you start to lose concentration, leave your desk and take a walk outside or to the office common space for a mental breather. This way, your brain associates your desk only with work, not mind wandering.
Warns Schooler: "If you don't take regular breaks—especially when you're not enjoying your job—your brain will take them for you."
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