Mind Wandering: How to keep your mind focused

Written by Kerstin Lakits, Jun 23, 2022

You’re sitting at your desk writing your paper or studying for the upcoming exam and suddenly you’re contemplating the purpose of your life and what you will have for dinner today. Does that sound familiar? Distracting thoughts, also called mind wandering, are an everyday phenomenon that haunts students. You’ll discover why our mind wanders and what you can do against it in this article.

What is mind wandering?

Mind wandering is nothing bad per se. If our minds never left the known realm and started wandering around, then our lives would be boring, monotonous and not very creative.

Mind wandering describes thoughts that are not related to your present exercise. Neurologists define them as thoughts that are not tied to the immediate environment.

Example: Mind wandering is suddenly thinking about the birthday party of your friend while you’re working on your seminar paper. Your thoughts are not related to your task, they wandered elsewhere.

Typical forms of mind wandering include ruminating, daydreaming and worrying. Everybody knows this: You’re studying with concentration for the upcoming exam and suddenly thoughts such as „What if…” come up. Your concentration is gone and your brain is following this new train of thoughts.

Root of the problem

The default setting of our brain is scattering, not concentrating. Generally our thoughts are random, incoherent and quick. We can consciously influence them to some extent; however, we can’t manage them all of the time. This feature is a result of our evolutionary history:

  • When we were constantly confronted with deadly dangers such as wild animals, our brains had to be on the lookout for new dangers.
  • Therefore, our brain checks new stimuli and information for potential dangers.
  • This search feature has kept us alive, but is distracting when we have tasks that require our full attention.

Our brain is prone to jumping to new thoughts if the information is new and interesting. That’s why daydreaming is so seductive. These thoughts are much more interesting than our study material. Furthermore, mind wandering happens so quickly and automatically that we only notice it when we’re already in the depths of it.

Negative consequences

Mind wandering has a bad influence on tasks that require a lot of concentration and attention. While it’s only “annoying“, when you’re studying, it can have dire consequences in different situations (e.g. driving your car).

  • Concentration: Mind wandering destroys our concentration and demands a lot of energy and effort to get it back.
  • Motivation: If we are interrupted all of the time and have the feeling that we don’t get anything done, then we lose motivation quickly. This is annoying and can, in the worst case, lead to procrastination. Check out our general tips for motivation for students to avoid that.
  • Productivity: Our productivity also suffers from mind wandering because we need more time for our tasks, work less efficiently and end up with worse results.
  • Losing time: We lose a lot of time to mind wandering because we interrupt our work process repeatedly and therefore have to get back to it again.
  • Worse performance: In the end, mind wandering leads to worse results in your work: Your seminar paper has weak passages, you don’t know the study material 100% and there are mistakes in your homework.
  • Mental capacities: Our brain has to invest tons of energy to interrupt your wandering mind and get back to the task at hand. Over time, this is exhausting and tiring.

Tips for mind wandering: How to stay focused

Fortunately, there are some tips and tricks to control your hyperactive brain.

1. Acceptance

These distracting thought processes are a natural feature that has served us and secured our survival. Therefore, you can’t simply turn off a habit that has helped you for thousands of years. Moreover, every single human suffers from this. So, don’t beat yourself up and get angry at your brain cells.

2. Clear goals

If you can convince your brain that your present task is incredibly important (for your survival) and interesting, then this activity has a higher priority. The more important your task is, the more likely your brain will stick with it. Therefore, set clear, motivating and positive goals. That works best with the SMART method!

3. Meditation

Research has shown that people who meditate a lot can control their thoughts and especially their wandering mind better. They know where their focus is and can keep it where they want it. Similar to mindfulness training, meditating helps you to practice calming down, focusing on one thing (usually your breath) and viewing everything from a spectator’s perspective. If you want more information on this topic, check out our blog “Tips for meditation”!

4. Mindfulness training

Since mind wandering is a subconscious and automatic behaviour, we often don’t even notice it, but you can change that. During mindfulness training you practice to focus on the present moment. This is a helpful skill, especially in our multitasking oriented and digital society. There are tons of inspiration and information online about mindfulness training.

The easiest exercise that you can do anywhere is consciously shifting your focus onto your breath. Pay attention to your inhalations and exhalations and see how they affect your body. As soon as you notice that your mind has wandered, bring your attention back to your breath. Soon you’ll realise that the interruptions are fewer.

5. Mental coping mechanisms

Distracting thoughts pop up suddenly and immediately pull you away from your task. Therefore, you need a quick and powerful defence. Create your own mental coping mechanisms. Look for a motivating and positive affirmation that you can use against mind wandering. This affirmation will bring you back to your task.

6. Breaks

If your brain is tired and exhausted, it’s harder to focus on your task. Therefore, study breaks are extremely important to allow your brain a moment of rest, so that it can continue to work with focus.

7. Reduce distractions

Even without distractions your mind can start wandering around. However, every distraction increases the likelihood that your brain finds more interesting and new information. Therefore, you should get rid of potential distractions (e.g. smartphone, toys…) and turn off disruptive features (e.g. push notifications).


What is a mind wandering meditation?

A mind wandering meditation has a special focus on mindfulness and mind wandering. On the one hand, you develop the skill to notice distracted thoughts and to bring your focus back. On the other hand, you get the opportunity to consciously let your mind wander during the meditation.

How can I study with concentration and avoid mind wandering?

Get rid of distractions in your study environment, set motivating goals and train your brain with mindfulness training and meditation.

Why does my mind wander all of the time?

It’s completely normal that your brain is constantly on the lookout for new information. This used to protect us from predators and other dangers. Today we find this feature annoying when we’re trying to study and work. However, it also makes our lives interesting, exciting, creative and innovative.

Mind wandering is sometimes annoying, but completely normal. These tips will surely help you to avoid distracting thoughts while studying and working with concentration. Here are more tips for effective studying! This prepares you well for your next exam!


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