Mind Wandering CAN be of benefit and serve a purpose towards the realisation of goals.
Having said that, before we go off and indulge carte blanche in flights of fantasy, it’s worth pointing out some research that counters ‘received wisdom’. The tide of positive thinking, self-help and the message that gurus across the land proclaim, that ‘if you imagine it, it will happen’, needs to be checked right there. Actually, research across a variety of domains shows that fantasising about the outcomes of your life you want to happen, is less likely to make said dreams come true. People trying to lose weight, by putting extra efforts into visualising this happening, for instance, lost less weight than those who didn’t take this approach. Similarly in domains such as academic achievement, relationships, and recovery from surgery, thinking positively about the desired outcomes had the same ‘negative’ result.
What’s going on here? Doesn’t this run counter to what we have been led to believe across all those years of positive psychology, of ‘self-mastery’ messages, therapist sessions, Hollywood movies? Well, yes. And so it should. Don’t believe everything you are fed!
Reversing the dictum that there’s no smoke without fire, let’s look at this from a slightly different perspective. It is thought that the reason why indulging in whimsical fantasies about getting that dream life, those rock hard abs, the keys to Gotham City (hang on minute...)...is less likely to make these things happen, is that you are vicariously enjoying having these perks right now. You are enjoying them as if they already happened. In effect your lazy brain, by virtue of having experienced these ‘hard won’ rewards you have ‘earned’, determines that there is no point in then expending further energy in putting in the actual hard work required to make them happen in the real world. Think of it as like writing a to-do list so that you don’t then have to do the tasks. You’ve ticked them off by the act of writing them out. There is no cost pertaining to reality, to real work, hard work – no consequence. Life is easier to live sometimes in one’s head!
Before we throw out the baby with the bathwater, there is a viable option to use imagination and ‘Mind-Wandering’ techniques (otherwise known as thoughts!) to help you achieve real goals, that manifest as rewards in the future.
This involves taking a slightly negative approach to your fantasies. Not necessarily thinking yourself into a really bad mood (although there is some truth in the notion that if you are fed up with aspects of your life this is motivation enough to do something transformative about it). Instead this is about injecting some sense of pragmatic realism into the fantasy world you are constructing in your head.
Mental Contrasting is a term that expresses this idea. And it has been shown to effect ‘selective’ behaviour change. This links the desired fantasy state of affairs to the current status quo, including the challenges, obstacles that are a source of discontent and impetus for change. It also sets expectations about what is required to action changes to get to where you want to get. And expectations drive the effort that must be galvanised to make behavioural modifications towards the end goal.
Importantly, fostering a consequent state of high expectation about how to overcome the obstacles in your way and resolve these as steps to achieve your future goal, will energise you and impel you to act more or less straight away. Conversely, revelling in the fantasy version of your life, or setting lower expectations, will result in little likelihood of embarking on the journey towards utopia! Physiologically speaking, high expectations raise systolic blood pressure, generating a surfeit of energy that demands being spent on pursuing the the path to your goals (which is in fact tackling the obstacles of the reality that stands in your way). If you can see your current reality as an obstacle then you are more motivated to climb over it, step round it, smash through it (!) towards the new reality you are empowered to build in it’s stead!
So the message here is that you can use your capacity for Mind Wandering in a proactive way to help you achieve your goals. A couple of points to emphasise to help you on that journey. Firstly, it takes cognitive effort. It is much easier for your brain to revel in fantasies of that golden future. But then as we have ascertained, it’s less likely to happen! But mental effort is a feedback loop that will tell you something worthwhile is happening. If you want a firm core, put the effort into doing sit-ups rather than imaging the benefits without any of the satisfying work that enables it’s achievement. Think of it then as ‘feedback’ rather than work if that helps motivate you even more! If you are blissfully happy and absorbed in the fantasy this is another feedback telling you that you are heading down a blind alley to progress. So snap out of it. Inject some realism. Check in with the future image of success achieved of course, but don’t dwell on it, or embellish it dreamily. Pull yourself back and think about the present. Think about the source of your discontent. But again, don’t dwell on it! Use the capacity to fluctuate back and forth, discipline your attention to switch meaningfully between moments. I will soon write a piece on how to train your attention to flip between different modes of attention and thoughtful processing to help manage this capacity further. Compare, contrast, and set expectations about how the present reality represents obstacles that are concrete but surmountable. You mind will be set towards creatively overcoming these obstacles!
Off you go!
Here is where I synthesise my Adventure Psychology approach based on my extensive adventure travel and pursuits experiences, more than two decades of applied psychological research, and my association and work with extreme sports practitioners. My philosophy can be boiled down to a simple premise (as elaborated on in Science section): a 'task-focused' mindset is key to achieve success! What gets in the way of this is 'self' Through a deep understanding of how the brain 'works' it is possible to refocus attention, use 'self-control' and engage with the world in a more efficient manner to achieve goals. I offer insights and techniques backed up with cutting edge science and practical knowledge, studying optimal performers to ensure insights are based on real evidence!