Mindful Multitasking or Zoning Out? Demystifying the Difference


“I try to maintain a healthy dose of daydreaming to remain sane.”

— Florence Welch 

Have you ever had your mind wandering? Maybe thinking about moving far away, talking to someone new, or imagining things that should happen? Some people may not like themselves when they zone out because there are a lot of talks about how zoning out is unproductive. 

Zoning out has been labeled as the culprit of unawareness of important details about one project, meeting, or interaction. However, before hating oneself for zoning out, how zoning out may bring positive impacts for individuals must be looked at as well. 

What is zoning out?

Zoning out is often referred to as mind-wandering or daydreaming. It is the presence of unplanned thoughts that are unrelated to one’s present circumstances. Daydreaming encompasses thoughts that one creates themselves, and these thoughts are not related to the current situation or the task at hand. 

Daydreaming or zoning out is an extremely common phenomenon. In fact, every person engages in daydreaming, which accounts for approximately 30-50% of a person’s total waking hours in a day. 

As a complex behavior, it has been associated with both adaptive and maladaptive results. This article will go through the misconceptions about zoning out and the facts according to studies. 

Myth 1: Zoning out is unproductive

Zoning out is often associated with unproductivity; however, research shows that zoning out may enhance creativity. One study explored how moments of zoning out, where the mind wanders, may link to creativity. The researchers examined 145 participants aged 19-32 and investigated whether engaging in specific tasks during an incubation period influenced creativity problem-solving. 

The tasks included demanding and undemanding activities that encouraged the mind to wander. The results showed that engaging in undemanding tasks, allowing the mind to wander, significantly improved performance on creativity problems compared to engaging in demanding tasks or resting — suggesting that letting the mind wander can enhance creative problem-solving.

Myth 2: Zoning out promotes negative mood

Zoning out is often perceived as disengagement from reality, which will always promote a negative mood. it may be true because during zoning out, individuals frequently engage in thoughts about events that are actually not occurring, and this leads to unhappiness. However, when the content of the zoning out was ‘happy’ or ‘calm,’ it led to a positive mood

Moreover, zoning out also leads to a positive mood when an individual’s thoughts are about the future or oneself rather than the past or others. Therefore, zoning out does not always promote a negative mood. The content of the thought during the period of zoning out is important in determining whether zoning out is a positive or negative experience. 

Myth 3: Zoning out leads to loneliness

There is a misconception that zoning out negatively affects interpersonal relationships, which in the end, promotes loneliness. One study involving a large number of participants in the United States found that daydreaming about distant acquaintances, such as past or potential romantic partners, strangers, or fictional characters, relates to more loneliness and less perceived social support. However, daydreaming about close relationships, such as close family and friends, is linked to greater life satisfaction.

Read more: What ‘Life Satisfaction’ Truly Means 

It happens because daydreaming about strangers might reflect a person’s dissatisfaction with one’s social network and motivation to change it. The study points out that the nature of daydreams is important to consider when determining how it affects loneliness and life satisfaction.

Read more: Maggie Hamilton: Loneliness | Sero Boost #10 

Myth 4: Zoning out hinders personal development

Even if zoning out may be viewed as a negative behavior, it may also benefit personal development. For instance, one study aimed to understand how the brain processes narratives and, specifically, how it reacts to narratives that appeal to “protected values” tied to personal, national, or religious identities. 

The research involved 78 participants from the United States, China, and Iran, who were presented with real-life stories derived from a collection of weblogs. The researchers used fMRI scanning to observe brain activity while participants read these narratives. The findings suggest that engaging with the narratives related to personal values triggered activity in the default mode network, which is the same region in the brain that becomes active during periods of zoning out. It shows that zoning out is related to deep thinking.

Myth 5: Zoning out is a distraction

There is a misconception that zoning out is synonymous with distraction. Although mind-wandering can certainly interrupt progress toward completing a current task and its associated goals, it may be useful in planning ahead and anticipating the future. 

One study involving 47 participants aged between 17 and 32 found that a significant portion of mind-wandering involves thoughts about the future, especially when the individual has idle working memory resources. This idle capacity allows for generating future-oriented thoughts during mind-wandering, aiding in autobiographical planning and considering personally relevant future goals. 

Read more: Goal-Setting: Why You Should Set Goals 

Essentially, mind-wandering can be a cognitive tool for envisioning potential future scenarios and preparing for upcoming events. Therefore, zoning out can lead to better outcomes when the person focuses more on the future rather than on the past or other irrelevant thoughts.

In conclusion 

Zoning out is a common activity that may bring both maladaptive and adaptive results. While zoning out may be a distraction to finishing a task and brings a negative mood, it may also bring some positive impacts, such as enhancing creativity, planning for the future, enhancing mood, and deep thinking. However, to get this positive outcome, it is advisable for individuals to focus on the future, close people, and reflect on personal values. By doing this, zoning out can be a natural and beneficial mental process.

If you would like to see more resources on relaxation, check out the Personal Science Labs. The lab uses the research of the Institute for Life Management Science to produce courses, certifications, podcasts, videos, and other tools. Visit the Personal Science Labs today.

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