How to Reduce Mind-Wandering and Be More Focused in Critical Situations

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.

About 47% of the time, we’re actually thinking about something other than what we’re currently doing.

“Practicing” scales, but thinking about lunch.

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?

Mindfulness training

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.

Practicing mindfulness

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?

Additional resources

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

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

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Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

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16 Responses

  1. I think that the way mindfulness helps when playing music is that it increases metacognition, or being conscious of what one is thinking about. So the ability to supervise the attention and focus it appropriately is enhanced, as is the consciousness of distracting thoughts and ability to let go of them. I understand other benefits have been reported such as improvement in working memory, but this is the one I am most aware of.

  2. This brings to mind a teaching experience MANY years ago as I was fairly new to teaching guitar. Total beginners started in a very simple note-reading book with one-line traditional folk tunes (no words – just melody lines). The book was also unique in the field because it did NOT have lots of background explanatory text. (This was/is common in classic guitar – especially in the years when many people tried to teach themselves.)
    – Most of my students were young adults at the time, so the comparison in accomplishment was fairly obvious. One young woman started into the beginner book described above, but went through it much, much faster than most. Her attention span was unusually long, and not interrupted by chit-chat, comments, lots of questions. As I got to know her, it came out that she meditated daily. The method she used was not discussed. The concept in American culture was still relatively “new.”

    Personally I was led into a kind of meditative-prayer (my term) about the same time. It was life changing – and all for the better. Whatever the method, I highly recommend learning to simply still the mind for a period of time each day.

  3. Since starting mediation a few months back I can certainly tell how it has helped me in not just practicing but also playing situations. I feel like I can get into “the zone” quicker and that is the place where we all want to be…..right?
    Kenny Werner wrote a book a few years back called “Effortless Mastery”. While geared towards a jazz and improviser’s point of view, it is still worth reading, and there is a CD of meditations that comes with it.

  4. Repetitiveness is also a surefire way to make your mind wander. If it’s not insanity, then doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results can’t be terribly healthy on its own.

  5. As an improvising musician, and as an Alexander Technique teacher, I would say that mindfulness is the most important aim when practicing music, as it not only leads to more satisfactory and fruitful practice, but also, more consistent performance. This is skill that can be addressed both inside and outside the practice room (e.g., mindfulness meditation courses, as you mention, can be quite helpful).

    The most effective way I’ve found to be mindful in practice is to be guided by inquiry: What am I practicing? ( the specific scale pattern, excerpt, etc.), What is my aim? (clarifying small goals that are attainable or at least approachable in the practice session) What am I doing with myself as I practice? (Am I tightening my neck and shoulders? Where’s my balance? Is my breathing free?, etc.) As long as I’m keeping these questions sincerely in mind, as part of my fabric of consciousness as I practice, I’m staying present.

    I believe the Alexander Technique to be a highly practical method for cultivating mindfulness, one that is particularly well-suited for musicians. Besides learning to pay attention to what you’re doing with yourself, you’re also learning to consciously prevent things that might be creating problems for you as you play (stiffening, overreacting, holding your breath, etc.) The beauty of all this is that it eventually becomes part of who you are as a musician. Just as you easily discern pitch and perceive time, you easily become aware of yourself, moment to moment. At any rate, thanks for another great, very timely article!

  6. I had my instrumental tech (classical guitar) class view videos on the web site for Search Inside Yourself, which Google publishes under the direction of Chade-Meng Tan. This is a mindfulness training course that Meng developed for Google. At the beginning of the semester I had the students fill out a self-report type survey on performance anxiety and concentration. At the end of the semester they filled out the same report. While not the most scientific survey in the world, I believe that the result which indicated an increase in confidence in their own concentration and a decrease in the debilitating effects of performance anxiety has some validity.

  7. I’ve been using “mindful” practice techniques for years now and I’ve seen the positive results – not only for myself – but for my students as well. The practice of music is difficult. It utilizes the entire brain. Being “present” while practicing is essential. Breath and body awareness are vital.
    Often i have my students do a breathing exercise at the beginning of their lesson . I also make sure that their entire body is relaxed (I believe it was Chopin who said a student must be relaxed from the top of their head to the tip of their toes) before we begin. Madeline Bruser, in her excellent book “The Art of Practice,” discusses the merits of meditation (Kenny Werner’s book “effortless Mastery,” mentioned in a previous post is also essential reading) Often what we do away from your instrument is just as important as what we do at it. Take breaks, DON’T practice every day. Cook, take in a play, read a book, exercise your spirit (genius) daily. We are an increasingly distracted culture. Multitasking is the norm and often bragged about, but in my experience, the folks who are the most successful have an amazing ability to focus, to be in the moment, to practice their craft slowly, with intent. I would also add that cultivating a meaningful relationship with nature can also help in this regard.

  8. Thanks again for another great post addressing the minefield of distraction, procrastination, and just plain out résistance most of us seem to encounter despite our best intentions and desire to make and share music. After many years of trying to come to grips with my own tendencies to let my mind wander or do anything but actually practice, I began to see how much of my time was spent engaged in writing a story line or screen play about what could or should or might happen in terms of my playing ability and all the possible outcomes instead of simply being right there, right then with the music I was trying to make. Now when I begin to hear the script writer gearing up to chime in, I ask him to wait until after we’ve finished the “run through” before adding his two cents worth.

  9. Terrific article and very resourceful comments from all! Another source for learning and making mindfulness a habit is a course from The Great Courses entitled, “Practicing Mindfulness: an introduction to meditation” taught by Prof Mark W. Muesse. The video lectures and course guidebook are an excellent introduction to mindfulness. Bravo to Dr. Noa for his Bulletproof lessons, regular articles and network of friends who comment and share.

  10. This is very interesting. I first noticed the mind wondering effect when I was studying in high school. While studying I would sometimes “catch” my mind wondering and really that I have read 2 or 3 lines but literally none of it has sunk in. Sometimes it would happen on an entire paragraph, I would then have to go back and read through the whole paragraph again.

    Fortunately with my guitar playing I have always been pretty mindful because I just really enjoy it but it is good to know that you can train your mindfulness buy just doing it more everyday. That is very cool.

    1. Victor, your post reminds me of my son, for whom the wandering mind issue became a serious problem in school. Turned out he suffered from ADD, which, although it is over diagnosed is a real problem for some people. What is interesting and from what I’ve read pretty common among those with ADD, is that when he is playing, listening to, or writing music he is completely focused. Fortunately he is able to make his living as a heavy metal guitarist. (The genre is consistent with his severe ADD, because it provided a high level of stimulation, which helps block out distracting information.)

      Now, what you are describing doesn’t sound like ADD as much as just plain every day mind wandering. You might look at is your sleep patterns. That sort of wandering mind is often exacerbated by fatigue.

  11. I am inclined to believe that reflective and purposeful writing is for me, my primary source of mindfulness practice. Of course, generally understood, a mindfulness practice is an adjunctive practice; an exercise ‘performed’ away from one’s specific discipline. In fact, I tend to emphasize the need for this kind of operation. Without a doubt, mindfulness is a mindset, as well as an art, when view through the lens of various, in this case, musician; who have discovered, or realized that certain practices just happen to support some, if not all of their separate and defined activities. What I am suggesting is, if one has developed mindfulness habits through whatever means, specifically, and especially apart from defined disciplines, such as music, painting, or any creative endeavor, can any of these possible discipline becomes a means of mindfulness practice?

    What I am suggesting is that if an individual utilizes a mindfulness practice apart from any particular discipline, at some point, the skill achieved, essentially eliminates, or minimizes the need for the adjunctive practice, because it automatically operates within the defined disciplines practices, or performed. In my opinion, this is, or should be, the goal of mindfulness practice; to achieve a state of mind that essentially, and automatically expresses, and applies this habit.

    If my opinion is reasonable, this question must be considered. Is it necessary to continue with the adjunctive practices that have achieved a sweeping, and beneficial effect, across one’s various disciplines? I would suggest this is a profound and highly individual consideration. If, for instance, structured meditation enhanced our practice, to where one can apply this discipline in our practice, or performance, should we stop, or limit such meditation. I think this question warrant some research. I’m far from sure. Intuitively, I would say no, keep meditating. On the other hand, I believe that our chosen disciplines or practices can become the instruments for meditation, or per this discussion, mindfulness. I offer these thoughts for you consideration. Thank you.

  12. This is fabulous! So glad that you are writing on the huge benefits of meditation and mindfulness. The biggest benefit for me is being able to connect to that genuine inner experience of inspiration that can take us beyond stage fright and into the zone for consistently inspired performance. It is possible to tap into the inspiration, the superconscious, that Brahms speaks of in Talks With Great Composers by Arthur Abell. (Highly recommended reading!)

    The more we practice increasing our awareness, the more we connect with our ensemble, with the audience, with the real inspiration that is resonating within us.

    My dream is to have a Mindfulness Symphony, where after the conductor walks out, EVERYONE takes a minute or two to drop into that heightened state of awareness through mindfulness, meditation, prayer, or simply entering into the silence. I firmly believe that the results will be amazing.

  13. Thank you for a wonderful article, and the youtube link. Ellen Langer’s presentation was totally fascinating, especially the revelation around 20.30 re eyesight tests. I was reminded of that wonderful musician Evelyn Glennie, who blew away our perception of “hearing” when she says we hear with every part of our bodies, not just our ears.
    My favourite mindfulness practice is Deepak Chopra meditation…probably the best $40 I ever spent!

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