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Mindlessness Can Be Just as Productive as Mindfulness

In praise of zoning out

The only time I’ve ever missed a flight, I was physically at the airport. But my mind was … not. I was wandering through the bookstore, lost in thought, my daydreams apparently intense enough to drown out both the final boarding call and my own name over the paging system. 

This kind of stuff happens to me with disheartening regularity, and it’s something I feel especially bad about these days, now that mindfulness—the ability to tether your thoughts to the present moment—has become such a huge part of the cultural conversation. It seems like every other day, there’s another book or study published on the benefits of keeping your conscious steadfastly in the here and the now. Congressmen talk about it. So do NFL teams. Even kids are encouraged to practice mindfulness. At the same time, the cult of productivity continues to grow. We’re encouraged to have more productive mornings and commutes, and even Sundays are becoming a day to squeeze in just a little more structure.  

But there’s something we’re forgetting here. Like just about every other aspect of the human condition, our consciousness operates on a spectrum. On one end lies conscious awareness, or mindfulness. But all the way on the other end, there’s something you could call mindlessness. And mindlessness brings many benefits that are being overlooked, like creative thinking and personal problem-solving. Both mindfuless and zoning out, and all the points in-between, are useful, argue cognitive scientists Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener in their new book, The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self—Not Just Your “Good Self”—Drives Success and Fulfillment. (You can read an excerpt of that book right over here.)

“One of the biggest misconceptions people have about mindfulness is that you can train yourself to stay in this mindful state all of the time,” Kashdan said. “And you can’t.” (“God, and why would you even want to?” Biswas-Diener added. “Oh my God, that sounds horrible.”)

“You cannot sustain a state of mindfulness over a long period of time,” Kashdan said. “You will naturally ebb and flow out of it. Even if you spent 20 years in a Tibetan monastery, you would not be able to stay in a mindful state. We are not, evolutionarily, designed to stay in this blissful, present-moment awareness state.”

Most of the studies on mind-wandering have characterized it in a negative light, often as a failure of cognitive control. A recent review of the literature found 29 studies since 1995 that focused on the downside of mind-wandering, each paper highlighting the undesirable effects it had on mood, academic performance, and comprehension, among other things. In the pro-zoning-out column? Just six studies.

So there appears to be a scientific consensus: Zoning out is bad. And yet we’re doing it about 50 percent of the time. According to Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, if it’s really as terrible as has been suggested, it wouldn’t make any sense, evolutionarily speaking, that we spend so much of our time lost in our own thoughts. “Most cognitive scientists tend to view mind-wandering as, you give people a task to do—like reading comprehension or some IQ task—and they say mind-wandering are all those thoughts that occur in our minds that aren’t relative to the task at hand, to the current goals,” Kaufman said. “But that totally assumes that there’s no value to the person’s own goals.”

Last summer, Kaufman (and co-author Rebecca McMillian) wrote a paper in Frontiers in Psychology, which contains a passage that eloquently identifies a real purpose for those moments that could be not-eloquently described as brain farts:

We mind wander, by choice or by accident, because it produces tangible reward when measured against goals and aspirations that are personally meaningful. Having to reread a line of text three times because our attention has drifted away matters very little if that attention shift has allowed us to access a key insight, a precious memory or make sense of a troubling event. Pausing to reflect in the middle of telling a story is inconsequential if that pause allows us to retrieve a distant memory that makes the story more evocative and compelling. Losing a couple of minutes because we drove past our off ramp is a minor inconvenience if the attention lapse allowed us to finally understand why the boss was so upset by something we said in last week’s meeting. Arriving home from the store without the eggs that necessitated the trip is a mere annoyance when weighed against coming to a decision to ask for a raise, leave a job, or go back to school.

In other words, the costs of zoning out are visible. (My own penchant for mind-wandering is undoubtedly the reason I misplaced my keys a week and a half ago and have yet to recover them.) But there are benefits, too—it’s just that they’re often private and personal, which usually makes them invisible.

When our minds wander, they tend to be pulled to the consideration of unresolved issues, or to the planning of future goals. And it’s during that spaced-out state that creative insight happens. “We’re not consciously able to do that in an effective way,” Kashdan said. “When we’re zoning out, really what this is, is the incubation period of creativity.” This is where ideas you never would’ve consciously connected seem to come together on their own—suddenly, it becomes clear why your best friend seemed distant at dinner last night, or what you should buy your dad for his birthday, for example. “With mindfulness, on the other hand, you are so in the present moment with your consciousness that there’s no room for ideas to collide,” Kashdan said.   

You’ve no doubt experienced a eureka! moment in the shower; this is why. Mind-wandering happens when we’re doing something kind of mundane and unchallenging; even scrolling through your Twitter feed counts, Kaufman said. “It bothers me when cognitive scientists focus too much on present-moment goals,” Kaufman said. “We have to understand that our brain is constantly going between two states of consciousness. Every time your mind wanders, usually, it’s wandering away to those future goals. The mindfulness movement is all about inhibiting, or ignoring, that, and I think it’s in fact really important to pay attention to it.”

To be sure, there are times to be in the moment. When you’re having dinner with family, a conversation with a dear friend, scuba diving while on vacation in the Caribbean—these are not ideal times to be checked out. But in the habitual, everyday scenarios, don’t feel any misgivings about zoning out for a bit. “You live in New York City—you take the subway, I assume?” Biswas-Diener asked me. (And, yes, I do.) “I mean, do you really want that same degree of sort of visual magic that you experience in the Caribbean to be on the subway with you? Noticing every detail about every person across from you, as if they’re tropical fish? Totally not! You want to protect yourself from some of that stuff. And that’s a great place to think of new story ideas and kind of zone out.” Way ahead of you, pal. Way ahead of you. 

This article originally appeared New York Magazine's Science of Us.