When parents see their children staring into space instead of finishing their calculus homework, they often feel anxious or frustrated.  They fear their kids are either unmotivated and lazy, or unable to focus and possibly suffering from Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

But, according to Daniel J. Levitin, a professor of neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal, Canada and author of The Organized Mind, “Zoning out is not always bad.” There are times we need to focus and be productive, but there are other times when we need to have no agenda and let our minds wander in order to tap into our most creative selves, says Levitin.

Levitin explains that our brains have a two-part attentional system: the Central Executive and the Daydreamer. The Central Executive governs our ability to be focused and productive. It has the "sticktuitive" ability to power through those calc problems or to do those drills to memorize Spanish verbs. And it is important to be able to call on that part of our brain to do those tasks that require focusing.

The Daydreamer part of our brain is the mind-wanderer that can provide us with unexpected ideas and insights during the most unlikely times – while washing the dishes, while going on a fast walk, while lying down with no agenda other than to do nothing, while spacing out at the computer.

The problem arises when:

* people try to up their productivity to meet all their demands and deadlines by better and better multitasking and leave no room for the Daydreamer

* kids and/or adults maintain 24/7 access to social media while also attending to homework, business and other thought-intensive tasks

If we don’t give our brains a rest from either the constant push to produce or from the bombardment of all the information coming at us, we cannot maintain a high level of productivity. In fact, it more likely leads to overwhelm, burnout or chronic exhaustion.

He cites two remarkable findings by Glenn Wilson of Gresham College, London:

- just knowing you have an email unread in your inbox while you are trying to concentrate on a task reduces your effective IQ by 10 points

- the cognitive losses from multitasking are greater than the cognitive losses from smoking pot.

In addition, Levitin points out, the continual shifting of attention that we do in multitasking causes the brain to burn through fuel so quickly that we become exhausted and disoriented after a short time. We've literally depleted the nutrients in our brain. No wonder teens complain they are exhausted when they are trying to do homework while keeping up with the traffic on their electronic devices.

The answer, says Levitin, is to give our brains a chance to reset by building in mind-wandering times and by enforcing break periods from social media.

Levitin emphasizes the term "enforcement" when he describes what it takes to take a break from our smartphones and from the pull of what he calls the "dopamine-addiction loop." For example, when we put up a facebook post or an Instagram photo and get a stream of "likes" in response, it provides a rush of dopamine to our system . And the more we get, the more we want that pleasure rush.

By contrast, if we can reduce the distraction when focusing on a task and if we can create room for daydreaming, Levitin asserts that

1. We’ll actually be more productive because we’ll focus better during the times we choose to, and, we’ll get some needed perspective during those relaxed times. He calls that a “reset of our brain’s neural system.”

2. We’ll be more creative as the mind-wanderer allows us to come up with fresh ideas and perspectives that our task-positive mind would be unlikely to discover.


1. Plan the day to include distinct times for both task-oriented work and creativity.

2. Allow 30-to-50 minute periods to immerse yourself in a specific task such as a homework assignment or a memo to a colleague.

3. Resist the pull to check text messages from friends or the scores of your favorite sports teams during productivity sessions.

4. Help enforce the break from social media and electronics by telling friends and family you will not check messages during task activities so they shouldn't expect you to respond right away.

5. Instead, build in 10-to-15 minute blocks for electronic communication and social networking: use those times to answer texts, emails and voice mails.

6. Set aside at least 15 minutes for mind-wandering and experiment with different activities to see which work best for you: listening to music; going for a run or fast walk; taking out the dog, or perhaps even doing mindless chores such as weeding the garden, doing dishes or folding clothes.

7. Stick with it: Changing longstanding habits may not be easy. You may experience withdrawal pains if you turn off your phone, or get antsy if you are a Type A person and are not accustomed to mind-wandering activities. But persist and don't give up! You may be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

8. Finally, to those parents who worry about their kids spacing out, remember that there is a difference between an inattentive mind and a wandering mind. Help your children when they need to focus and also support them to find other times to reset their brains. In the right place and at the right time, zoning out may be one of the healthiest things they and we could be doing.


“Hit the Reset Button In Your Brain,” opinion piece by Daniel J. Levitin, New York Times, August 10, 2014

“The Organized Mind,” KQED Radio Interview of Daniel J. Levitin with Michael Krasny, September 2, 2014

Levitin, Daniel J., The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, Dutton Adult Press, 2014

Contra Costa Men’s Center  eNews

Resetting Our Brains for Maximum Productivity:

“Zoning Out is Not All Bad” according to Professor of Neuroscience

By Steven Freemire, MFT, CCMC Director

Fall 2014