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The Power of Mind Wandering

Leverage unfocused mode to see psychological benefits.

The Power of Mind Wandering

One of my favorite ideas comes from William James, who is considered the father of American psychology. He said that when we die, our lives will have been a collection of what we paid attention to.

The Two Types of Attention

Our brains essentially have two types of attention, or “modes.” Focused and unfocused.

Focused mode is a mind at attention on the outside world. It’s on when we’re processing outside information, completing a task, checking our smartphone, watching TV, listening to a podcast, having a conversation, or anything else that requires us to attend to the outside world.

Unfocused mode occurs when we’re not paying attention. It’s inward mind-wandering. Scientists call the brain regions that fire on when we’re unfocused “the default mode network.”

The Case for More Time in Unfocused Mode

Focused mode is obviously critical to life and living it. But we now spend a significant amount of time focused on things that aren’t necessarily improving our lives. The average American now spends around 12 daily hours outwardly focused on digital media. Most media might be free monetarily, but we’re paying for it with time in focused mode.

And it’s expensive. Think of focused mode like lifting a weight and unfocused mode like resting. Like trying to do rep after rep after rep of an exercise, our attention eventually tires when we overwork it. Modern life, with all our time spent focused outwardly on screens, overworks the hell out of our brains.

Unfocused mode, on the other hand, restores and rebuilds the resources needed to work better and more efficiently in the focused state. The fact that we now spend less time mind wandering and more time focused may be causing us to reach near-crisis levels of mental fatigue.

Research shows that the onslaught of screen-based media has created Americans that one researcher described as “increasingly picky, impatient, distracted, and demanding.” These terms fall under the umbrella of “insufferable.” And overworked, under-maintained minds are linked to depression, life dissatisfaction, and the perception that life goes by quicker.

Focused Mode and Stress

More than half of adults said they were under “high stress” in 2017. That number rose post-pandemic. Anxiety grew by 39 percent in a recent one-year period. Attention spans fell by 33 percent from 2000 to 2015. Depression diagnoses are up 33 percent since 2013.

I spoke with Dr. Judson Brewer, a professor of psychiatry at Brown University Medical School, about this.

“I wouldn’t pin this on mobile technology (and our influx of media) one hundred percent,” said Brewer. “But I’d say it’s ninety percent due to it.”

It’s not just that we’re spending so much time in outward focus. It’s also that what we’re focused on can stress us out. For example, 90 percent of news is negative. Twitter and YouTube algorithms tend to upvote content that makes people feel sad, annoyed, outraged, etc. There’s a reason researchers are now studying “toxic Twitter” and YouTube’s “hardcore rabbit hole.”

The Challenge

Lean into unfocused mode. Give yourself some time to let your mind wander this week. Try even five to ten minutes of just sitting and letting your mind go where it needs to go. You’ll probably think about truly random and bizarre stuff if you’re anything like me. But you also may stumble into some great insights. If nothing else, you’ll give your mind a rest break, so it’s sharper for your next session in focused mode.

2% Top Two

My two favorite things this week ...

1. This Gym Workout

I love the StairMaster. I love rucking. Marrying them makes sense and delivers a myriad of benefits.

2. A Grand Gesture

Last week, I mentioned that my wife and I went on a weeklong cruise. Part of my reason for locking myself on a gargantuan ship was so I could finish the first draft of my next book, Scarcity Brain. I woke around 4am every morning and wrote until at least 9am on the deck of our room. Then I’d write again for a few hours each afternoon.

My time on the ship was what the Georgetown scientist Cal Newport calls “the grand gesture.” In his book Deep Work, he writes: “By leveraging a radical change to your normal environment, coupled perhaps with a significant investment of effort or money, all dedicated toward supporting a deep work task, you increase the perceived importance of the task. This boost in importance reduces your mind’s instinct to procrastinate and delivers an injection of motivation and energy.” It worked. I finished the draft and submitted it to my editor on Monday. I recommend you figure out your own grand gesture if you ever have a massive project to complete.

Thanks for reading.


Sponsored by GORUCK

When I decided to accept sponsorships for this newsletter, GORUCK was a natural fit. Not only is the company's story included in The Comfort Crisis, but I've been using GORUCK's gear since the brand was founded. Seriously. They've been around ~12 years and I still regularly use a pack of theirs that is 11 years old. Their gear is made in the USA by former Special Forces soldiers. They make my favorite rucking setup: A Rucker and Ruck Plate.