I’ve written quite a bit about ADHD here since discovering how it has controlled my life from the shadows, and how much I underestimated it. There’s a common lack of understanding of the scope and severity of it that leads to a lot of people going untreated or undiagnosed, thirty-five years after it was added to the DSM. Essentially, ”low attention span = ADHD” seems to be the general consensus, but the reality includes emotional sensitivity, working memory issues, and numerous other symptoms and traits that can have a debilitating effect on a person’s life. Just as important is the fact that a person can be neurotypical and still have these symptoms, and that’s what brings us to the topic of the wandering mind.
The wandering mind is exactly that: Mind wandering. An attention span that goes off course from time to time. This is really just something that comes with modern life, not just because of our decreasing attention spans (a bit of trivia whose accuracy is more dubious than you might expect), but because we naturally drift off when we lose interest in something. We also daydream and ruminate, depending on where our focus lies and what’s going on in our lives.
These sudden drifts in attention can actually cause quite a bit of trouble for us though, and in important roles that trouble can be catastrophic. Thankfully it’s much easier to treat than you may expect, and if you don’t have ADHD or any other disorder then you won’t even need to see a doctor. The key to controlling this (notice I said controlling, not fixing) is mindfulness, be that meditation or otherwise.
Meditation’s purpose is to train the mind and be able to control it more easily while also being able to recognize unhealthy or unwanted thoughts if they occur. Most often, it’s done by minimizing distractions in the environment, closing the eyes, sitting still, and focusing on the breath. If you’re thinking “that sounds boring” well, in a way that’s the point- in modern culture it’s so rare to have nothing demanding your attention that a lack of boredom has become a detriment. Eventually your mind will drift off, and once you realize it has, you can refocus on the breath, or a particular part of the body, or whatever you choose. That act of recognizing the drift and bringing the attention back is exercising your attention span, strengthening it and making your thoughts much easier to control. Alternatively, you can get into a meditative state and allow the mind to completely run free while you acknowledge thoughts as they pass. This is often referred to as “noting”. There are many analogies for this. Headspace, a meditation app, compared it to watching cars pass on the interstate, with the cars representing individual thoughts. I’ve also seen it compared to watching sushi pass by on a conveyor belt. Here’s an angry thought, here’s a funny thought, here’s a memory from middle school, here’s something you forgot to get at the store. Just notice them, maybe give them a brief label or classification, and then allow it to pass and the next one to enter. This practices recognizing thoughts so you can catch unwanted or unhealthy ones before they take hold of you, and the more you practice it, the more effortless it becomes.
Mindfulness is by no means limited to meditation though, moreso that meditation is the most effective tool beneath the mindfulness umbrella. A memory that stands out to me whenever I think of mindfulness is when I was at the grocery store with my girlfriend at the time, and was dealing with what I would call a “garbage mood”. I was needlessly irritable and bitter, but I was aware of it. As my partner browsed the produce, I stood by the peppers, took a few deep breaths, and really tuned the whole world out. I focused exclusively on the present moment, the mundane nature of a trip to the produce section and the ambient noise and smells around me. My mood changed completely and I was able to continue grocery shopping without being cranky. This, I believe, required a certain amount of experience meditating and using mindfulness, but much less than you might expect.
In cases of using mindfulness in the world instead of in meditation, the emphasis is more on the five senses and the present environment. I strongly recommend practicing this as it exercises your focus and prevents rumination if you’re stressed or dealing with something difficult. Consider your senses and walk through each of them, one by one. What do you see around you? What do you hear? What do you feel (temperature, feeling feet on the pavement or body in a chair, feeling how your clothes fit)? What do you smell? If you can taste something, what does it taste like? Crucially, give each sense ample time to recognize what it’s experiencing before moving on to the next one.
Remember that your focus is a tool that can be used in nearly any scenario, and that you benefit greatly from being able to control it and use it as you see fit. You can also decide when to turn it loose, and let thoughts pass through you on their own- something that’s a great first step to any sort of creative process.
Do you have any tips for controlling a wandering mind, or utilizing focus to its maximum potential? Tell us about it in the comments!
Holleman, N. (2019, March 20). 5 signs of a restless or wandering mind, what then? Medium. https://medium.com/@nancyholleman/5-signs-of-a-restless-or-wandering-mind-what-then-ccf2d2a5733a.
Jha, A. (2020, July 31). The science of taming the wandering mind. Mindful. https://www.mindful.org/taming-the-wandering-mind/.
Hasenkamp, W. (2013, July 17). How to focus a wandering mind. Greater Good. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_to_focus_a_wandering_mind.
Maybin, S. (2017, March 10). Busting the attention span myth. BBC News. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-38896790.