The Wandering Mind

Drake Baer, in an article titled “The Science Behind Why Your Mind Keeps Wandering,” begins with this exercise. “Count your exhalations–1, 2, 3–all the way to 10. See if you can get to 10 without thinking about lunch or laundry or deadline or dates.” It’s hard to do. We have problems in focusing our attention on what is being said.

Part of the problem is that we think four or five times faster than a person can talk. Thus we have all of this extra thinking time. As a result, our minds wander. Often the talker can tell that we are not with him or her mentally by the glazed look or eyes darting to movement in the surrounding area. This is insulting to the person talking and can affect your credibility.

Here are some techniques for focusing your attention on what the speaker is saying.

Change your physical position. You might lean forward or cross your legs or rearrange your body so that you are sitting at a different angle toward the speaker.

A tip that may seem obvious is to look at the person speaking. Concentrating on what is being said is much harder if you are gazing into space, even if you are trying to listen.

Another way to focus is to think of a question to ask about the topic. Even if you don’t ask the question, just thinking of one will help you stay alert to the content of the conversation.

Choose a mantra that will remind you to pay attention to the speaker. Such self -admonitions as “Pay attention,” or “What is his point?” or  “Concentrate on her idea” can help. Using words that stress focusing on the message will make less likely a wandering mind.

Finally, listen to summarize at times during the conversation. When the person finishes his or her thought, begin with, “What I hear you saying is…” or “Let me make sure I understand…” With this challenge in your mind, you can apply self-discipline to pay attention.

I am guilty of this listening problem. My wife will call my attention to this weakness when she suddenly stops talking and says, “Now Steve, tell me what I just said.”  Most of the time I cannot do that because I have not been focusing on her message.

So I will remind myself of the suggestions in this article and do better at avoiding her penetrating challenge.

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. Steve won the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 1970 and was chosen Outstanding Professor of the Year at NKU in 1984, among other awards and honors. Since retiring, he volunteers with nonprofits, spends time with family, travels, preaches occasionally, and enjoys reading and writing. Contact Steve at (859) 866-5693 or at

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