When the brain is underutilized, its activity turns to daydreams

Stefan Klein, in his book The Secret Pulse of Time, reports that psychologist Leonard Giambre has documented our mind’s tendency to wander. He asked people to solve a puzzle. At random times he would remind them of their task with a beep. If they were daydreaming or thinking of something else other than the task at the time of the beep, they were to push a button. In the course of the half-hour experiment, they pressed the button an average of over 40 times.

A similar experiment had the subjects read Tolstoy’s War and Peace with similar results. Their eyes followed the text and the words were sounding in their heads, but their thoughts were miles away. When they were given a comprehension test, it was found they had retained next to nothing of the plot.

When the brain is underutilized, its activity turns to daydreams or internal monologues or anxiety. We are incapable of complete idleness.

Our brains are programmed to keep alert for danger, which is not conducive to concentrating on one task for any length of time. If you’re engaged in a conversation at a party, and your name is mentioned by someone in a nearby group, your mind immediately picks up on it – and then turns its attention to that conversation. So when it comes to interruptions, even your own mind works against you.

Traditional suggestions from the past, such as a closed door, screened calls, departmental quiet hours, and office layout simply don’t apply since the office environment has changed considerably. Two things that are still important are the times you choose to work on priority tasks, and the length of time you spend on that task or project.

The longer you work on a specific task, the more chance you have of interrupting yourself. So schedule priority tasks in chunks of two hours or less – preferably less. Your energy and ability to concentrate rises and falls in 90 minute cycles. This is the continuation of the sleep cycle and I recommend 90-minute works sessions mainly for this reason.

The most productive time of the day is 10:30 AM for most people so mornings should be reserved for priority work. Early birds should start their major products even earlier. And of course if you have any influence on your work location, take advantage of it. Some people work at home in the mornings; others work at a coffee shop. Choose a location where you can best concentrate on the task at hand.

Regardless of where you work, it is important that you control the technology. Turn off your cell phone or smartphone, engage the voice mail and ignore email while you work on your scheduled project. And maintain focus on the task, jotting down ideas that pop into your mind without being detoured by them.