Retaining Focus With Maladaptive Daydreams: What to DoLast Updated:
The primary issue with stopping maladaptive daydreaming is that it’s nearly an autonomic response; something that you slip into without consciously realizing it for sometimes dozens of minutes.
For many trying to quit maladaptive daydreaming, one of the most frustrating experiences is finding yourself in a maladaptive daydream through the day even though you didn’t make the conscious choice to start daydreaming.
This is particularly the case for students and professionals trying to focus throughout the day on whatever important tasks are in front of them. In fact, it’s the experience of most people that they’re most prone to maladaptive daydreaming when they’re trying to focus.
This can seem ironic, for obvious reasons, but has a reasonably rational explanation: focusing, especially on something difficult or that you don’t find especially compelling, is difficult and your brain will understandably try to distract you with something less mentally taxing.
And if the way you most often distract yourself is through maladaptive daydreaming, then it follows that when you’re trying to focus on difficult tasks then you’re going to be most susceptible to begin maladaptive daydreaming.
I’ve been asked by a number of people how to improve their focus when they’re struggling with maladaptive daydreams. There’s plenty of literature on how to improve your focus in general, but it strikes me that maladaptive daydreamers may need to get a bit more creative in their approach.
Below is a little three-step system I’ve devised that’s deceptively easy to follow and is worth trying out if you’re finding yourself slip into maladaptive daydreams when you’re trying to focus on something important.
Step 1: Write Your Maladaptive Daydream Down
As you go about your day, keep a little piece of paper with you. Or, alternatively, keep the “notes” tab on your phone open and ready to use.
Then, whenever you find yourself engaging in a maladaptive daydream, just write down one quick sentence describing what the maladaptive daydream was. You don’t need to worry about scoring any literary points here, and you don’t need to worry about ever showing what you’ve written down to anyone.
For most people, writing down your daydreams has a way of lifting some of the appeal of them – at least for a temporary period of time. Think about writing your daydreams down this way as just getting them out of your head, clearing some space for what you need to focus on.
Step 2: Take Three Deep Breaths
After you’ve written down a sentence or two about the maladaptive daydream you were engaged in, close your eyes and take three deep breaths to try to clear your mind. The goal here is to try to clean the slate and do a little mental reset.
If you’re somewhere public, then you don’t need to close your eyes. You can just try to take three subtle breaths in and out. In my book of maladaptive daydreaming I took pains to say that you don’t have to adopt a meditative practice, or spend hours researching meditation, to get the benefits from simply engaging in some deep breathing exercises.
You’ll immediately recognize that (for some reason!) taking deep breaths in and out, especially with your eyes closed, does seem to cause a little mental reset to take place. Almost like it clears the mental cobwebs that have been forming in your mind.
Step 3: Write Down Two or Three Tasks to Complete
After you’ve completed your deep breaths, write down (either on a separate piece of paper or a separate tab of your notes app) two or three tasks you need to complete immediately. So, for example, if you’re writing a report this could just be “complete one page” written two or three times.
Note: It’s important that wherever you’re writing these tasks is separate from where you wrote down your maladaptive daydream you were just engaged in. After your breathing exercise, you don’t want to re-read your daydream again as it’ll plant the seed in your mind about potentially restarting it.
The thinking behind this step is pretty straight-forward: after you’ve cleared your mind, at least a little bit, from the breath work you want to dive right back into whatever you were previously trying to focus on (before being derailed by your maladaptive daydream).
By setting out these quick tasks you have a clear list of what to accomplish, and you’ll benefit from the little dopamine rush we all get when we cross items off our to-do list.
There’s zero reason to overthink what the tasks you write down are. In fact, it’s important not to make them too lengthy. So, if you’re currently reading something then don’t say “read the rest of this research paper” or “finish this chapter”.
Rather, keep it drop-dead simple and just say “read five pages”. You want to make sure that you’re always accomplishing these little tasks, even if they seem a little bit trivial.
I’ve told this little three-step system to quite a few people, and it seems to work far better than you’d initially think (especially given how easy it is to implement!). But there’s a plausible explanation for why it works: all this system is accomplishing is a little mental reset, while integrating in tactics (i.e., writing down your daydreams) that help maladaptive daydreamers.
The other reason this system likely works so well is that it takes virtually no time to do. Theoretically, whenever you find yourself engaged in maladaptive daydreaming while you’re trying to focus you can do these three steps in under a minute.
Note: There’s no hard and fast rule for how long you should take to do step two. The main thing is that you at least try to empty your mind with a few deep breaths. If you can commit to doing a little meditation, for say two minutes, then that may be even more helpful. But don’t fall into the trap of trying to do too much, and then not developing the habit of carrying through these three steps because it seems like too much effort.
As I wrote in my book, the only way to truly stop maladaptive daydreaming is to try to make them less appealing to engage in. There are a number of ways to do this, and quite a few tactics and tricks you can implement, but one way is to always try to cutoff your daydreams whenever you find yourself engaged in them.
In other words, don’t fault yourself for falling into a daydream (they are, by definition, hard to avoid falling into) but whenever you realize you’re daydreaming try to pull yourself out and refocus on something else (i.e., reading, studying, writing, etc.).
Following this little three-step system won’t just make you better able to focus for long periods of time without falling into maladaptive daydreams, it’ll also hopefully help stop you from falling into maladaptive daydreams routinely – since, by cutting them short, writing them down, doing some deep breaths, and refocusing you’re inherently making them less appealing to engage in.
However, it’s important to not be self-critical of yourself if you don’t find progress coming as quickly as you’d like. Always maintain a positive attitude, and feel free to refine or augment any of the steps listed above if those refinements or augmentations seem to help you refocus better.