Zoning Out At Work Is A Good Thing – Really
> Zoning out is involuntary mind-wandering
Awhile back, we had an experience that is all to familiar for millions of us. We're at our desk making a phone call to customer service to sort out an issue.
[Monotonous female voice recording answers the call]
“Hello and thank you for calling the Acme Corporation.”
“We are the nation’s leading quick-ship retailer of industrial and commercial products serving the construction, demolition and highway industries.”
“You have reached the customer service department. Our hours of operation are from 8am to 6pm eastern standard time.”
“We are currently experiencing higher than normal call volumes and your wait time may be extended.”
Of course, as always. When is it ever not? They all say this just to cover their ass.
“In order to best serve you, please select one of the following nine options. Please listen carefully to each of the options as the menu options may have changed.”
Dammit, they shouldn’t have said that last part.
It’s like a hypnotic spell.
We feel the onset of mind drift.
“Please press 1 for anvils and anvil related products…”
“Please press 2 for rockets and rocket-propulsion kits...”
“Please press 3 for…”
And that’s when it fully kicks in. We only got past the first two menu options and our mind decides to check-out of reality and zone out.
Our mind is in la-la-land floating from one thought to another or at some moments, just existing in a state of blank nothingness.
Most of the time, we don’t hear a thing. In the rare times we do, it’s nothing discernible. It’s usually just faint murmurs of a recorded voice like Charlie Brown’s teacher. It’s not even words. It’s more like distant audio tones.
We completely miss all the options except for the very last one because our mind miraculously decides to come back at just the right time.
“Please press the star key to repeat the menu.”
Ugh - we gotta listen to this again.
So, we reluctantly press the star key.
“In order to best serve you, please select one of the following...”
This time, we command our mind, “Okay, FOCUS, pay attention and pick the right one.”
We try to strong arm our brain to stay with us for the second go around through the menu.
After the painstaking process of listening to all the bullshit, our mind still drifted. Unsure of whether or not our request fit any of the options, we just press zero continually and yell “representative” into the phone until we get a live human being.
This whole episode wouldn't have been as bad if our mind just hadn’t zoned out.
But, it’s like an uncontrolled trance that takes over us.
Here’s a short 25 second video clip of two professional basketball players in a post-game press conference interview. Watch the guy on the right. This is how we feel and look like when our minds are in that “special place.”
VIDEO: Draymond Green Zoned Out
This is something that everyone, from kids to adults of all ages, experience in their lives. For some people, it happens a lot, while for others, it’s only a sporadic thing.
But, why does this happen and how can it possibly be a good thing at work?
What Is Zoning Out?
You know what mindfulness meditation is, right? It’s been the trendy thing for the past several years now. Everyone’s practically doing it.
Here’s a short blurb for those not as familiar.
Mindfulness meditation is a method to calm the crazy mind. It’s pretty much the most widely accepted method to handle stress. We believe in it and support it too.
However, mindful meditation requires effort and focus. It requires mental energy to get the mind to stop racing around in its own tornado of thoughts. Its main goal is to settle the mind’s attention to the present moment, the here and now.
Spacing out or zoning out is pretty much the opposite of being mindful.
It’s unhooking the leash on the mind and allowing it to just wander freely in the fields of thought or exist in open emptiness. It simply meanders from one moment to the next and drifts carefree.
Simply put, it’s letting go.
There are two types of mind-wandering:
1) Aware of wandering - you’re actively thinking about other stuff
2) Unaware of wandering - your mind has drifted off unknowingly
The first type of mind-wandering is when we know we are thinking about other stuff.
It’s those moments when our mind is being bombarded by all the other distractions, stressors, wants, issues, etc. in life. We purposely shift our focus and choose to think about those things, sometimes to our detriment, especially on stressful stuff.
The second type of mind-wandering is the involuntary kind. It’s the main one we’re talking about here. It’s when we don’t realize that our mind is disconnected from our surrounding environment. This is “zoning out”.
Many people believe this is kind of mind-wandering is totally unproductive. It’s the absent-mindedness, carelessness, lack of focus or mental discipline.
It’s not surprising to see that there are many research studies that say “zoning out” is a bad thing. In these cases, it’s called “cognitive control failure” or lack of cognitive control. In other words, you can’t control your mind for shit.
It’s like back in the day when our parents or teachers would yell at us, “Stop daydreaming! Pay attention!” And you would snap back to reality.
Why Does It Happen?
There’s a lot of research that answers the “why” from a negative viewpoint - mostly the person has little control over their mind’s focus.
However, there is a growing counter group being led by a pair of researchers on why this uncontrolled behavior can be a good thing.
Dr. Jonathan Smallwood, a neuroscientist in Germany and Dr. Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, are leading studies on the ins-n-outs of zoning out.
Their research shows that zoning out can be a critical step in allowing our mind to have the space and energy for understanding a concept, clarifying our next steps, triggering a creative spark, having that eureka moment, etc.
It allows our mind to momentarily get off the treadmill of reality and unplug from the matrix. It needs to do this every once in awhile to get a mental breather to recharge/relax and take a break from all the external bullshit going on in our lives for just a few minutes.
Think of it as a mental micro-nap while you’re awake.
How Does It Happen?
This all happens without our active involvement. It’s automatic. Our minds will just reach down and pull the plug for a few minutes then plug it back in when it’s ready.
Dr. Smallwood and Dr. Schooler call this process "decoupling hypothesis."
When your brain determines that there’s nothing crazy going on, no issues, no stressors, no threats of personal harm or danger, it can decide to just turn off the world. And, at that moment, we become oblivious to what’s happening around us.
The next thing that the scientists figured out is that our eyes do different things when we’re zoning out versus when we’re fully aware.
Under normal conditions, our pupils open and close to adjust to things in our environment. However, when we’re in a zombie-like state, our pupils don’t react at all to the immediate surroundings.
This kinda explains why we all get that blank-stare look on our face when we’re zoned out. Sexy, right?
So, now that we know the what, why and how, the next point is...
How Zoning Out At Work Is A Good Thing
For most of us keyboard peckers, zoning out at work can be a good thing, but not in the way you’d expect.
If you’re spotted spacing out a lot, especially by your boss, it makes you look like an absolute moron. Mainly because it looks like you’re not working and just sitting there daydreaming.
On the surface, any kind of spacing out may seem like an absolute waste of time.
But is it really?
The benefits of zoning out are more indirect and don’t necessarily have a positive impact on whatever it is your working on at that moment.
The few minutes lost in actual work time is indirectly gained back in the form of greater productivity for the remainder of that hour or day.
Here’s what we’re talking about.
1) Feeling Good = Better Work
Much in the same way that meditation can bring feelings of calm and refreshment, zoning out for a minute simply feels good in an indescribable, comfortable kinda way. It’s hard to put a finger on it. And, you know exactly what we’re talking about.
It’s almost like the feeling you get when you’re taking a nice quiet short nap. You can feel yourself drifting off quietly and calmly. As the nearby sounds begin to fade into the distance, your mind and body begins to dial down the tempo.
After waking up from the nap and getting past the initial grogginess, you feel refreshed, recharged and ready to do stuff.
And, when the mind gets that fresh reset, it feels good which leads to a bump up in positive mood and ultimately, just that little bit more verve in your work.
2) Zoning Out Leads To Better Focus
Yes, that seems ironic. But, it’s true.
When our minds are able to press the pause button and detach from the world’s constant noise, it begins to relax and recover. Our minds are saying to us, “Hey, don’t bother me right now. I need this little quiet time.”
This little ‘time-out’ session allows our minds to rest and then reboot back to reality with a bit more focus and clarity.
Sometimes, a simple brainless, mindless zone out session is just what our minds need to mentally recharge and get back to work with a bit more verve.
3) Subconscious Creativity & Problem Solving
Even though from the outside it may look like we’re totally checked out, our minds are still working behind the scenes in a subconscious way.
The mind is more relaxed in this spacey status. It begins to process stuff randomly and in a totally different way that often leads to new ideas, perspectives, thoughts, etc. It’s thinking without your active involvement.
It’s during these moments where it figures out the true meaning behind that cryptic email. Or, why your boss reacted in that way. Or, it discovers a completely different angle to handle an issue.
It’s All Good - Don't Worry About It
In almost all cases, zoning out at work is harmless and can be seen as a productive little activity.
This quick two minute video puts it all together nicely.
VIDEO: Why Zoning Out Is Good For You
YOUTUBE: New York Magazine
- Mindlessness is beneficial for us
- Being unfocused is useful for clearing the mind
- Mind wandering allows room for creativity
However, in other obvious situations, zoning out is a big no-no.
We don’t have to tell you that zoning out while driving through an intersection is a bad thing. And yet, there are thousands of accidents due to inattention.
And, definitely don’t space out all day long or when you’re presenting information in front of upper management. You’ll look like a complete idiot and that’s a serious “career limiting move” that will derail your chances of any sort of promotion.
So, as long as you’re at your desk, it’s okay...go ahead and get lost in your thoughts when you need to. Then, refocus, get back in the zone and keep on cranking away.
Oh...and about that customer service call to Acme - we finally got to the right place and right person to handle our request. We were able to exchange our rocket for a much larger one. 😉