What It Means If Your Mind Wanders When You’re Practicing

Whether you’re driving to the grocery store, going for a run, or practicing your scales, have you noticed how your mind will often wander off to other places?

It’s sort of a bizarre phenomenon when you think about it. A little like being a zombie in your own body. Because you’re there, but you’re not there.

What’s more disconcerting is just how much time we spend in “zombie mode” – 46.9%, in one study.

Of course, mind-wandering isn’t all bad, but it’s certainly not helpful when we’re trying to learn. Whether we’re engaged in score study, reviewing recordings of run-throughs, or practicing, it’s being present and thoughtful that leads to greater gains, not mere repetition whilst daydreaming about the latest magic cake variations you saw on Pinterest.

So why does our mind wander anyway? And what can we do to keep it here in the practice room with us?

A learning “sweet spot”?

Previous research in the area of mind-wandering suggests that there are a range of factors – like boredom, lack of interest or motivation, and fatigue – that increase the likelihood of our minds going offline.

But there haven’t been a ton of studies looking at strategies for keeping us more on-task. So a pair of Columbia University researchers set out to test the Region of Proximal Learning (RPL) model. A theory which suggests that we each have a learning “sweet spot.” A zone of difficulty where the material we’re studying (or practicing) is neither too easy (and boring) nor too difficult (and overwhelming). The idea being, when we’re in this optimal zone of learning, we’re more likely to be engaged and focused on the task at hand because there is enough of a challenge to keep us interested, but not so much challenge that we feel frustrated and feel like giving up.

They designed a series of experiments in which college students were presented with a variety of English words for which they had to learn the Spanish translation. The word pairs were either easy (Taxi – Taxi), moderate (Music Hall – Vodevil), or difficult (Stain – Chafarrinada), and while studying, the students were occasionally prompted on screen to report whether they were focused on the task at hand, or whether their mind was wandering.

After the study session, students were then tested to see how well they had learned the words.

Two main findings

There were a few consistent findings across the three studies.

Finding #1: Students experienced more mind-wandering when they were studying words that were too easy or too difficult. They were more focused when studying material in their sweet spot (i.e. Region of Proximal Learning, or RPL). The researchers also noted that each student’s sweet spot was unique, depending on their existing skill and knowledge. So it’s not like there’s a universal sweet spot for learning; we each have an individualized zone of learning that is optimal given our current level of ability.

Finding #2: There was also more mind-wandering as the study sessions progressed – students had an easier time staying focused and on-task in the first half of study sessions; less so in the second half of study sessions.

Is that it?

At first glance, these insights may seem a little boring…

But actually, I think there are some important takeaways.


I used to think that mind-wandering was something that just happened when my brain was being lazy. That I simply had to will my way to greater focus. But this study makes me wonder if will-power is not the answer. And that it would be more productive to use the occurrence of mind-wandering as a diagnostic tool.

In other words, if our minds are more likely to wander when we are practicing something too easy or too difficult, perhaps the best thing to do when we catch ourselves zoning out is to pause for a moment and ask why that just happened.

Is what we’re working on too easy? If that’s the case, then maybe we haven’t set a challenging enough goal for what we’re working on. Instead of simply aiming for 5 “perfect” repetitions in a row, perhaps it would be more engaging (and increase the difficulty factor a smidge) to make each repetition slightly different than the one prior. To make the passage slightly more nuanced. More exciting. Greater dynamic contrast. Faster. In other words, to engage in repetition without repetition (ala this music example, or this sport example).

Alternately, is what we’re working on too difficult? Maybe we’re nearing the end of a practice session and getting too tired to think clearly and creatively. In moments like this, a water break, or a little stretch and walk outside could help.

Or perhaps the problem we’re trying to solve is a bit beyond what we have the knowledge and skill to solve at the moment. Well, that’s ok too. If we just keep plugging along at the stuff that is in our RPL, our skills will continue to grow, and before we know it, we’ll be moving on to solve those no-longer-slightly-too-challenging problems too.

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8 Responses

  1. This is an incredibly inspiring read. So many of the points about mind-wandering relating to level of difficulty resonate with me. I am definitely going to try to use that knowledge to ‘diagnose’ when what I’m practicing is too easy or too difficult.

    Thanks for the insights, Noa!

    -Jon Foster

  2. This is such an important topic both for practicing and performance! I personally don’t find level of difficulty to be the issue as much as intention. I think we are built to focus on stories. Our minds wander when we are not involved in narrative.I often use the example that most of us can focus on a 2 hour film without losing attention, but have trouble following a 10 minute piece of music. In teaching people to listen to classical music, I’ve discovered the trick is to involve audiences in a narrative they can follow throughout the piece—not an external “program,” but a way of actually following the composer’s musical ideas. As a performer, that method has calmed my anxiety and focused my performance as well. By focusing on a specific musical narrative I want to deliver to the audience, each moment in my performance I’m involved revealing the next development. To practice this way is even harder, but as you suggest by devising different dynamics or phrasing for repetition, I think we need a storyline.

  3. What if you can’t decide for yourself how long or engaged your practice is? My parents waste no opportunity to try and control me, how do I convince them that that’s the wrong thing to do?

  4. Great post on an important issue, as always. The last paragraph left me hungry for more! I long for more guidance on exactly how to objectively identify when something is beyond the current knowledge and skill level– what some writers have called working on “accessible repertoire” that leads to mastery in a “reasonable” period of time– and so just keep chugging away at it as you suggest? How do you know? I’ve worked on pieces on which I never dreamed I could accomplish a certain amount of progress, but never acquired mastery despite an inordinate amount of time and effort spent, that I’m too ashamed to confess. But I continue to plug away, unwilling to concede defeat, yet never gaining the victory.

    Dr. Noa, please consider writing on this topic at some point. Thanks for a great website!

    1. 1. Can’t offer a definitive answer, but this brings to mind a beginning adult student from many years ago. She meditated, and mastered the very-beginning material in roughly half the time than “average” comparable students. The focus in lessons was extraordinary.
      2. And though not sure what this might mean: I’ve found that students who want to do a lot of talking in lessons do not concentrate as well. They tend to be too analytical or dependent (“Do you think I’m ready for this?” chit-chat, etc.) As comparison, the quiet individuals tend to accomplish more, have in-depth questions (if they talk at all!!). Am remembering especially one young man in early high school at the time: Three words would be major conversation. If he even asked a question, I was surprised. He went on after high school to be invited to study with 2 of the top teachers of his instrument at the time (two different conservatories), accepted the school of the teacher he preferred to work under, graduated from a major conservatory.

  5. Regarding the “too easy” aspect in the article, a personal experience: I prepared a major organ program some years back for part of the dedication series for a new instrument in a church. The program was a mix of new and demanding pieces, and some very familiar pieces. Based on the coaching of a teacher / concert artist for the program, I worked on some (to me) fresh concepts of focus. The problem pieces were the ones I already had in my repertoire and were either easy to play (a “break” between the heavier selections) or very familiar already. – Tempting to go on auto-pilot, and mess up! To keep focus on the familiar items I “told myself” what was coming next: harmonic analysis (“D chord beginning next measure”), technical basics (“low D in the pedal coming up – reach far left with left foot”), expressive elements (“left hand down to Choir, right hand on Swell for solo, next phrase”) The trick wasn’t that I was learning these obvious aspects, but rather that I deliberately “self-talked” my way through as a means of keeping focus. Worked beautifully – a very successful program.

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