Stop paying attention! it's making you dumb...


Staff balancing pencils on their lipsIf your mind often wanders during speeches and, dare I say it, reading articles (!) then it's time to stop feeling guilty. It's good for you!

Everybody knows what it's like to have your mind wander and we often berate ourselves when we realise we've done it, especially if we feel we've missed something important.

Research psychologists have also been avoiding the subject as they've felt it was too difficult to study and probably not worth it and... something else they couldn't quite remember... their minds were wandering too.

Recently though, they've managed to figure out how to measure it and they have found something rather shocking....

... the mind wanders around 5.4 times in 45 minutes, even when you are completing a very important task! (thanks to Dr Jonathon Schooler, University of California for working that out)

When the task gets simpler, people spend just half their time thinking about the task, half wandering off. And our mind wanders more often if we are feeling sad.

In regular life we tend to "zone out" 13% of the time, more if you are drunk, but you won't know it or won't remember it which is pretty much the same thing.

Unsurprisingly, zoning out makes us much less accurate in tasks that require attention to detail, according to Dr Merrill McSpadden, of the University of British Columbia, and mostly, we have no idea when we are zoning out doing these detailed tasks - which could be a worry if you're a brain surgeon!

(Again, thanks to Dr Jonathon Schooler University of California, Dr Alan Gordon Stanford University, and Dr Kalina Christoff, Dr Rachelle Smith of University of British Columbia for this disturbing idea)

So why do we do this??

Well, according to that last group of researchers, we do it because: when we zone out we are mostly thinking about the future.

It's a natural mechanism that allows us to think deeply about bigger issues while also completing short term goals. This is the minds natural method of multi-tasking.

Now fighting something as natural as this can be very frustrating, so why not harness it instead!

Put time aside for zoning out (while reading or some similar task where it won't endanger your brain surgery career). Especially if you have a decision to make about your future, or if you have a particularly knotty problem to solve.

Famous people who have solved knotty problems after zoning out (and knew it) were:

  • Albert Einstein: his theory of relativity - he found the answer after a good night's sleep and a bath)
  • Henri Poincaré: one of his trickier math problems - he found the answer on a boring bus ride to a conference.

So - go for it! Feel free to zone out! And encourage your staff to do the same every now and then: it's good for your thinking!


Dr Louise Metcalf

Associate Lecturer at

Internationally published leadership expert. One of the top 100 Sustainability Leaders in the World (ABC Carbon, 2011, 2012). BA (Hons in Psych), Masters of Applied Psychology Organisational, MBA, PhD, Member APS College of Organisational Psychologist, membership of Academy of Management. Louise has decades of experience in the field of organisational psychology and general psychology. She is a highly respected leadership and change management consultant in Australia

Comments (5)
Wendy Huang

Wendy Huang, Full Time Blogger and YouTuber at A Custom Blog in 4 Minutes

This happens to be all the time!! Except I also act out on my "zoning" out like sometimes I'd come up with a random question about something and have to Google it it in the middle of an important task - otherwise it nags at my mind. Also I love how you pointed out that it was about the future. You are totally right!

John Belchamber

John Belchamber, Owner & Senior Consultant at Invoke Results

Great advice Louise thank you. I find taking a little 'time out' to sit still and just notice where the mind is wondering off to is very helpful. With all the clutter of information these days, it's so easy to loose sight of what our mind is doing with it.

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