How to Make the Most of a Scattered Attention Span

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Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock

There are times – like, say, a Friday afternoon when the weather has finally started to turn warmer – when your poor mind has just had it. Deep focus on one singular task is just not happening, no matter how noble your intentions. The thing to do here is not to sternly corral your brain back to the task at hand, not necessarily, anyway. Instead, writes psychologist Christian Jarrett over at 99U, your best option may simply be to follow that feeling.

Cognitive scientists have dubbed this state of mind “leaky attention,” which, Jarrett explains, means that “when [people] are concentrating on one thing, other irrelevant information can still seep into their consciousness.” But even though that information may not have much to do with the thing you’re currently working on, that doesn’t mean it’s useless.

As Science of Us has noted before, an intriguing new line of research is finding a link between creativity and a so-called leaky mind — the same information that can serve as a distraction in one context can also serve as an inspiration in a different context. “A real-life equivalent would be trying to concentrate on reading an article in a magazine, but realizing that your attention has just been grabbed by the ad on the opposite page,” Jarrett writes. “This is going to be detrimental to reading the article, obviously, but at the same time that ad could provide the spark for your next creative idea.”

So rather than trying to command your wandering mind to stay put, dammit — let it wander. Let it roam, and then see for yourself what sorts of weird ideas it comes back with when it’s time to settle back down.