Balancing Your Body and Mind

10 Tricks to Reboot your Brain

Ever walk into a room and forget why you entered? Or completely space out during an important meeting at work? It’s frustrating, but usually normal.

Your brain is naturally primed to wander whenever it can, according to a joint study by Harvard University, Dartmouth College, and the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. Using MRI, researchers found that brain regions responsible for “task-unrelated thought” (that is, daydreaming or mind wandering) are almost constantly active when the brain is at rest or performing a task that doesn’t require concentration.

Fortunately, brain experts say it’s possible to corral that brainpower, filter out distractions, and master any task by improving your concentration. Here are their top tips for refocusing during key moments when your mind starts meandering, but shouldn’t.

Get organized

If you have several to-dos, decide what to tackle first, and clear all other projects off your desk and computer screen. “Out of sight, out of mind applies,” Kane says. “Get rid of memos, e-mails, and anything else that reminds you you’re behind.”

And go easy on your cubicle’s decor. “Even family photos are potential thought stealers,” Kane adds, because they’re people you’re prone to worry about.


If you daydream during meetings, challenge yourself by thinking of questions and actively joining the discussion, suggests Jonathan W. Schooler, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. You may miss a moment if you’re formulating a question, but you’ll stay focused on the current topic.

Tie a string on the steering wheel

When you think about the same things during your commute — anticipating the day’s workload, or what to cook for dinner — your brain begins to associate the car with zoning out, says Kane. A novel, visual cue such as a colored string or dashboard sticker can snap you out of your “dream-driving” habit.

Play a game

Those involving counting and geography are great ways for kids to pass the time en route — for good reason: The contests use items that you should be aware of while driving. Try tallying all the states represented by the license plates of the cars in front of you.

Take a break

Take time-outs to process the material; mentally recap plot points or a character’s motive, for example. “Periodically think over what you’ve read — it can improve comprehension, probably because it reduces mind wandering,” Schooler says.

Go backward

If you glossed over a few paragraphs, read them in reverse — reordering small packets of information can sometimes change how much of it you absorb. It may feel odd at first, but the extra effort required will force your brain back into focusing.

Join a club

A little peer pressure to finish a book by a certain date can go a long way, especially if you’re expected to talk about the content. Budget the number of pages you’ll need to read daily, and if you own the book, write notes in the margin and mark meaningful passages to boost both concentration and comprehension.

Get it off your chest

Talk about your worries with a friend or family member, either in person or on the telephone, to clear your head. Writing down your thoughts may be as effective as saying them out loud: List ways to address the problem and then move on, recommends Eric Klinger, PhD, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Minnesota, Morris, who has studied thought patterns during daydreams. “Committing a plan to paper helps put the problem on the back burner, so you can shift your attention to other things,” he explains.


Meditation, a proven stress reliever, may also let you tune out distractions, found recent research. Amishi Jha, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, studied attention control in people before and after they learned mindfulness meditation (sitting quietly for 30 minutes a day, focusing on breathing; when the subjects noticed their minds drifting, they gently guided their thoughts back to their breath).

After 8 weeks, they showed significant improvements at “orienting,” or staying on task and quickly refocusing their thinking after being distracted. “Meditation trains you to put your attention where you want it and make sure it stays there,” Jha says.

By Ann Hettinger