The Negative Consequences of Mind-Wandering

Mind-wanderingHave you ever been somewhere – in a conversation or meeting – where your mind is somewhere other than where you are? Of course you have – probably multiple times in the last hour. That’s because mind-wandering is human nature.

A study at Harvard found that people spend 46.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing. Essentially – not being present. The study also correlated this type of mindlessness to unhappiness. “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” said the lead psychologists of the study, Killingsworth and Gilbert. They continued, “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”

Other research has shown that humans have 50-70 thousand thoughts a day – that’s about a new thought every 1.3 seconds. Of these thousands of daily thoughts, 90 percent of them are the same thoughts as yesterday and the day before. Sometimes, these same thoughts have been interrupting your presence for months or years.

This kind of mindlessness is often referred to as the default mode network of the brain. It’s where the majority of us humans spend the majority of our waking hours – ruminating about the past, obsessing about ourselves, projecting into the future, and essentially thinking about anything except what’s happening right now.

While this may make you chuckle because it’s so relatable, this type of mindlessness comes with great consequences. And in this digital era we are living in, with technology being more and more woven into the fabric of our lives, mindlessness is only increasing.

The Impact of Mind-Wandering

Here are some of the issues I’ve seen arise in myself, in clients, and in research, from this type of mindlessness:

  • Misunderstandings
  • Lack of focus
  • Communication breakdowns
  • Stress (and in turn, a host of other issues…)
  • Closed thinking
  • Trouble prioritizing
  • Mistakes
  • Prejudice
  • Burnout
  • Unhappiness
  • Lack of productivity
  • Strained relationships

Although the picture I just painted may sound grim, researchers at Yale found that there are ways of changing the default mode network of the brain to establish a baseline that is less mindfulness, more present, and in turn, happier.

How do they suggest cutting back on the mind-wandering and gaining more presence? With meditation.

Meditation is the most powerful way to retrain your brain to be more present and less mindless. When you practice focusing on one thing at a time and being present during meditation, you become more adept at focusing on one thing at a time in every area of life – you’re rewiring your brain to be more present.

When you’re mindfully present, rather than mind-wandering, you can:

  • Reduce the byproducts of stress
  • Increase productivity, creativity, and problem-solving skills
  • Improve focus
  • Increase feelings of engagement
  • Decrease reactivity
  • And the list goes on …

Short Exercise

Notice for yourself what kind of feelings being present creates. Close your eyes and think about a time when you were extremely present with someone. When you have a clear picture of this example in your mind, start to notice the details about this memory and ask yourself:

  • What did it feel like for you to be present with someone?
  • What did it look like in your body to be present? (Were you holding eye contact, smiling, relaxed…?)
  • What emotions come with being present?
  • What was the connection like with the other person in this example?
  • How do you think the other person in this situation was feeling?

Explore the example in your mind for a few moments, and notice the ways your presence may be helpful to your work, family, productivity, creativity, and relationships. How can you bring elements of this example into your life every day to increase your ability to be more present?

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Melissa Eisler

Melissa Eisler, MA, PCC, is an ICF certified executive coach. She partners with leaders to develop their systems thinking, resilience, strategic communication skills, and executive presence in order to reach individual, team, and organizational goals. She blends more than 15 years of experience in leadership positions in the corporate world, with her master’s degree in organizational leadership and extensive background in mindfulness to help her clients master their leadership skills and steer their teams through challenges and change. Learn more about Melissa here.


  1. Suruj on September 23, 2019 at 11:05 pm

    Very Good Article. Thank You for providing such a good Information.

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Melissa is the founder and executive coach at Wide Lens Leadership and a Partner at Evolution. As an ICF Certified Executive Coach with a Master's degree in organizational leadership, Melissa has coached hundreds of leaders ranging from C-suite to entrepreneur, from Fortune 500 companies to startups, and across diverse industries. Her work focuses on helping high-performing senior leaders and their teams magnify impact by building trust, collaboration, accountability, and healthy communication skills.