What is it about?

It is often implied that mind-wandering consists of useless activity that disrupts focus and performance. However, many studies show that people think about the future when they report they were distracted. We have developed an experiment to study this future-oriented thinking by letting them alternate between two tasks. While doing the first task, information about the second task was already displayed on the screen. Even though we did not instruct people to use that information, many people used it to plan for that second task while performing the first, which we could determine with an eye tracker. We could determine that planners performed better at the second task than non-planners. On top of that, people would only engage in planning when the characteristics of the first task allowed them to do so.

Featured Image

Why is it important?

The research shows that mind-wandering is often useful, because it can enhance future performance. In this study, people were quite adaptive in determining when to plan ahead and when to focus on the present task. Previous research has shown that this is not always the case, probably giving mind-wandering a bad name. The study also shows that, contrary to the popular idea that people cannot multitask, people are juggling multiple tasks in their mind all the time, and they can interleave them quite adaptively.


I have always been fascinated by the ability of people to perform novel tasks they have never done before based on very sparse instructions. This mystery is taken for granted in experimental studies. The set of experiments in this paper gives us some insight in this process.

Niels Taatgen
University of Groningen

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: The art of planning ahead: When do we prepare for the future and when is it effective?, Journal of Experimental Psychology Learning Memory and Cognition, May 2021, American Psychological Association (APA), DOI: 10.1037/xlm0000970.
You can read the full text:




The following have contributed to this page