Is It Good or Bad to Zone Out, Space Out, or Daydream?

Whether you call it zoning out, spacing out, or daydreaming, we spend up to 47% of our waking lives letting our minds wander. This week, the Savvy Psychologist explains why mind wandering happens, when it’s good, when it’s bad--and how it might even lead to your own "Eureka!" moment.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #36

This week, we answer a question from Savvy listener, Phillip L. He’s been following the latest research connecting daydreaming and creativity, and asks if daydreaming is so great, why isn’t it more satisfying?  Why do we feel like we’re wasting time?

The short answer is that, in a culture that values productivity and goal-directed behavior, daydreaming is looked at, at best, as a momentary distraction--and at worst, irresponsible loafing. But it turns out that daydreaming, zoning out, and spacing out--collectively called "mind wandering" by psychological researchers--is a mixed bag, with both benefits and costs.

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What is Mind Wandering?

But before we get into that, let’s define "mind wandering," so we’re all zoning out on the same page, as it were. Mind wandering is “a shift of attention away from a primary task, toward internal information,” or “stimulus-independent thought.” In other words, it’s what’s happening when you’re trying to read "War and Peace," but your mind is planning dinner. Or when you’ve been staring at the TV, but you suddenly realize you have no idea what Phil and Claire are talking about. .

Mind wandering happens on two levels: one, when we realize we’re not on task, and two, when we’re not even aware that our mind is drifting. The latter, mind wandering without awareness, is officially called "zoning out."

Why Does it Happen?

Mind wandering happens under almost any circumstance. To illustrate, in a 2010 study in the prestigious journal. Science, researchers collected over a quarter million data points by contacting study participants’ smartphones at random times during the day, and asking how happy they were, what they were doing, and whether or not they were thinking about something other than what they were currently doing. A full 47% of the time, participants reported they were thinking about something besides what they were doing. The only activity where they weren’t distracted was sex. Hey, at least we can focus on something.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.