How to Reduce Mind-Wandering and Be More Focused in Critical Situations
By Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.
Take a moment to go wash your hands (yes, really).
I’ll tell you why in a minute, but either way it can’t hurt – keyboards and smartphone are notoriously disgusting.
So…when you were washing your hands, what were you thinking about? Were you paying attention to how nice the water felt as it washed over your skin, how the soap felt intriguingly slimy at first, but then gradually washed away into a refreshingly clean feeling, and how it felt to dry your hands off on a clean, dry, towel, and notice the last bits of moisture evaporating from your hands?
Or were you wondering why the heck you were washing your hands, thinking about how the rest of the article better be worth it, or pondering the germ-iness of your phone?
Our monkey minds spend an awful lot of time wandering to future, past, and task-unrelated thoughts.
Counting rests in orchestra, but thinking about how someone put on too much cologne.
Taking a test, but having to re-read the question multiple times because you’re too busy worrying about whether you’ll know the answers and have enough time to finish.
Mind-wandering seems innocent enough, but can significantly degrade performance.
There are strategies and tactics that can help (like deliberate or interleaved practice and setting more specific practice goals), but what if there were a way to target something deeper? Like your core ability or capacity to keep your focus on-task and reduce mind-wandering in the first place?
We know from previous research studies that reading comprehension suffers when our mind is elsewhere (it also makes intuitive sense), so researchers at UC Santa Barbara were curious to see if mindfulness training (which is essentially about strengthening our ability to be more present in the current moment) could a) reduce distracting thoughts and b) improve performance on a reading comprehension test.
48 undergraduate students completed an excerpt from the GRE verbal reasoning section to measure reading comprehension.
Then, they were randomly assigned to either a mindfulness training course or nutrition course, under the pretense that the study was to be a direct comparison of two equally effective programs for enhancing cognitive performance.
Each course involved participating in eight 45-minute class sessions over two weeks, plus some daily homework.
The mindfulness class consisted of 10-20 minutes of mindfulness exercises, sharing of experiences, and feedback from the expert instructor, all geared towards giving participants a clear idea of how to practice mindfulness. Each participant was expected to meditate daily for 10 minutes and to integrate mindfulness into their daily lives.
The nutrition course covered basic topics in nutritional science, and strategies on how to eat more healthily. Their homework was to keep a daily log of what they ate each day.
Mindfulness training and reading comprehension
After finishing the two-week course, participants’ reading comprehension were tested once again via a different GRE excerpt of comparable difficulty.
As you might expect, the nutrition training had no significant impact on reading comprehension. The mindfulness training on the other hand, even after just two weeks, improved scores by the equivalent of 16 percentile points.
Mindfulness training and mind-wandering
To measure mind-wandering, the researchers used a previously established protocol which involves thought sampling (where participants are periodically interrupted during their test to gauge to what degree they are focused on the task) and self-report.
Here too, researchers found that mindfulness training had an impact. Among those who experienced a lot of mind-wandering in their initial reading comprehension test, there was a significant reduction in distracting thoughts following the two-week training, and participants were better able to remain focused on the reading task – which led to improved performance.
In other words, participants experienced less mind-wandering, which translated directly into getting more out of the reading and performing better on the comprehension test. They didn’t get better at taking a test, so much as they actually improved their core ability to focus and experience fewer distracting thoughts in the first place – even after two weeks.
So whether we are talking about reading comprehension, getting more out of a practice session, or being more present and less plagued by detrimental task-unrelated thoughts in the moment of a high-pressure performance, there are growing indications from studies like this one and increasingly common use in sport settings that a mindfulness or meditation practice can contribute to enhanced performance in a very meaningful way.
Why mindfuless works (maybe)
Why does mindfulness seem to improve our ability to concentrate and focus? Well, mindfulness training seems to reduce activity in a collection of brain regions referred to as the default network – which usually shows more activity when we are at rest and not particularly engaged in tasks that require the use of our conscious brainpower. Since the default network has been associated with indicators of mind wandering in previous studies, it might be that mindfulness has an impact on mind-wandering by reducing activation of the default network.
There are many ways to practice mindfulness in our daily lives, from eating more mindfully, to walking more mindfully, to washing dishes more mindfully.
But a more formal meditation practice is also worth considering. If you find the idea of meditation a little too new-agey for your tastes, and the skeptic-alarm is going off like crazy in your head, a great down-to-earth introduction to the case for meditation is 10% Happier, by Dan Harris (for instance, he originally wanted to title the book The Voice in My Head Is an @$$hole), followed by Kamal Sarma’s Mental Resilience.
What is your favorite or most helpful mindfulness or meditation resource?
Check out Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer’s entertaining 22-minute talk on our zombie tendencies, and something about a horse eating a hot dog. @PopTech
Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.
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