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.

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.