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Fidget Less, More Success!

You’re sitting in class trying to scratch down notes as your professor drones on and on. In the midst of the monotonous task, you begin to think of the busy day ahead of you. Lost in thought, you shift in your seat, and soon your notes have become little more than a few random words on a page, and you realize you’ve missed the last five minutes of the lecture.


We’ve all been there. We all find our minds wandering off from time-to-time, and we’ve all experienced that feeling where your leg starts shaking, fingers start tapping, and you just can’t seem to sit still and focus on the task at hand.

It makes sense that if your mind is elsewhere, your performance on the current task will be largely inhibited, but why is it that the deeper we fall into this trance, the less control we have over bodily movements too? What is the connection between this occurrence of motor and mental restlessness—that is, how do fidgeting and mind wandering relate?

 A recent study looked for answers to these questions. Researchers sought to uncover why and how mind wandering and fidgeting relate to one another. Standing accounts of mind wandering already agreed that primary-task performance suffers as a result of mind wandering, but Seli et al. believed that the effect should be similar with regard to secondary-task performance as well.

So, in a pair of studies, participants were asked to engage in two tasks. The primary task was a metronome response task (MRT), in which they were asked to press a button in synchrony with tones. Their secondary task was simply to sit still. The first study just looked at the basic relationship between mind wandering and the occurrence of fidgeting, and the second study looked at the effects of the degree to which the mind wandered.

They found that mind wandering is associated with decline in performance of both primary and secondary tasks, and that the degree of this effect may be dependent on the depth of mind wandering.

Attentional resources and executive control are central to the explanation of the findings here. The capacity theory of attention posits that attention is a limited resource to be allocated proportionally across tasks. So, say you are trying to do homework and watch television simultaneously. Watching TV uses up some of your attentional resources, leaving fewer available to devote to homework; as a result, the efficiency with which you are able to perform the task is reduced. This is basically what Seli et al. tried to get at in this article. The idea is that when the mind wanders, executive-control resources that should be allocated to task-related goals are taken up, so both primary and secondary task performance suffers because there simply wouldn’t be enough attentional resources available to fully perform the tasks.

Executive control is an important facet of attention, central to task completion. It is what allows us to direct our attention toward one thing or away from another. The MRT primary task likely requires a lot of executive resources, while sitting still would require relatively less, as it is a more automatic process.

A wandering mind signifies loss of executive control toward task-related goals. So, lower levels of mind wandering have a negative impact on MRT performance due to a lack of resources available for the demanding primary task. Under this condition, however, the ability to sit still would not be impacted to the same extent, because executive resources are allocated to the less demanding task. But, in states of deep mind wandering, both primary and secondary task performance declines. Enough executive resources are diverted away from task-related goals in this case that the resource requirements for sitting still can’t even be satisfied; thus, fidgeting increases with increased levels of mind wandering.

This study highlights the importance of executive control in task performance. They’ve taken a new perspective on mind wandering and opened up a new pathway for understanding resulting behavioral changes. The correlation between mind wandering and the occurrence of fidgeting suggests that the effects of mind wandering can span beyond just primary-task goals. So, next time you’re in class and your mind gets away from you, it may not just be your notes that take the hit.



Seli, P., Carriere, J. S. A., Thomson, D. R., Cheyne, J. A., Ehgoetz Martens, K. A., & Smilek, D. (2013). Restless mind, restless body. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40, 660-668.

To read the original article, click here.



  1. November 29th, 2014 at 11:13 | #1

    I thought that this article was very interesting, but it definitely left me with many more questions to think about! Although it seems that the article does a very good job in terms of making the connection between executive control and mind wandering, I find mind wandering itself to be an interesting concept. It seems as if there is an assumption made in the article that if you are fidgeting it must mean that your mind is wandering due to weak executive control, which is presumably because the more you fidget the worse you are at the primary task. However, because the primary task is a very basic MRT task, I wonder how much this is actually applicable in a class room setting. Responding to a beeping sound seems like it wouldn’t take up that much attentional resources, or even that much thought. In a classroom you are expected to not only pay attention to what the teacher is saying, but also try and understand and process the information as well. It would be interesting to see this study conducted again using a range of tasks that vary in attentional resources and see how fidgeting differs. (I always thought shaking my leg was something that helped me concentrate, but I’m glad to know that maybe its the opposite!)

  2. jwlester
    December 2nd, 2014 at 12:22 | #2

    Nice post Kelsey. I like you connections between decreased attention and fidgeting through mind wandering. It does seem that when I dedicate less attention to a task like taking notes, I start to do other things with my hands, like fidgeting and drumming on the desk. This being said, Leah mentioned that shaking a leg maybe helped attention. I also still wonder if fidgeting is something that just occurs, does it use up more attention to CONTROL it as opposed to letting it happen. That being said, I think people naturally stop fidgeting when they refocus and rededicate attention on the important and relevant task.
    Mind wandering studied in such simple task is interesting too. It makes sense that to study mind wandering, simple attention tasks are used, because it ensures the subject has to consciously control their own attention if they want to stay focused. A more complex task than the MRT or sitting still-like performing cognitive tasks like math problems-would make it a lot easier to keep the mind from wandering because it actually captures attention.
    In my very limited experience with meditation, I have found that the hardest thing to do is control attention on a single, focused task (like breathing) and sitting calmly and still follows. I like how the study further confirmed this by indicating that attention control leads to non-fidgety attention in class.
    Oh! In addition to personal attention benefits of not fidgeting, not tapping your pencil will certainly allow your classmates to focus on the lecture instead of being distracted by the incessant noise!

  3. December 3rd, 2014 at 23:59 | #3

    As interesting as it is to know more about what underlies the time-to-time mind wandering that I do it is also a bit threatening to think that the study shines light on such an act’s capability to result in behavioral changes that can be permanent, long-lasting? It wasn’t quite clear. Moreover, in understanding how attention resources are limited when analyzing the effects of primary and secondary task we can further investigate this phenomenon by looking at exogenous and endogenous orientation. This can potentially result in findings speaking to specific characteristics individuals may have to make mind wandering more reflexive or goal-driven, ultimately leading to correlations of this being genetic or just a tendency (just something to think about). I also enjoy knowing how this study contributes to the idea of multi tasking not existing because of the decline in performance of both primary and secondary tasks. I find that I am also left with more questions on what exactly is affecting the decline in attention to each task, is it filtering (Broadbent, 1958) or because of impairments to components of the early selection model that address the processing of stimulus.

  4. October 21st, 2015 at 20:38 | #4

    This article was very interesting because it helped me start to think about the psychological consequences that affect students on a daily or hourly basis, if not more often. The research done on this subject shows clear evidence that attentional capacity is limited, and linking that to fidgeting makes other questions pop into my head about attention and working memory.

    In my cognitive psychology class, we recently studied an article by Conway et al. about how levels of working memory affected participants’ focus and ability to recall items in a span task. A span task we issued to both high and low working memory participants, while their name was distracting them (Moray’s “cocktail party effect” from 1959). The results showed that people with high working memory were much less distracted by their name being said in the background and scored better on the given span task.

    These results make me wonder about how different levels of working memory in students affects the amount of fidgeting, and also if fidgeting equally pulls attentional resources from both high working memory and low working memory students. It may be possible that students with higher working memory could handle this dual task of fidgeting while paying attention in class due to their higher levels of working memory and attentional resources. But, what is more interesting to me would be to see the effects that fidgeting has on both students with high working memory, and low working memory. Would one be affected more than the other, or would the standardized task of bouncing a leg under the desk cause decreases in both’s span task performance?

    On another note, could it be possible that for someone how has been what we can call a “fidgeter” his or her whole life, we see decreased affects of this mind wandering and fidgeting. If the mind has to dedicated attentional resources to spinning a pencil, would making that task habitual and almost automatic drastically reduce the amount of attentional resources being used? I myself, have been bouncing my right leg under desks, at the dinner table, in movies, for as long as I can remember. If that act has become a habit of mine does it affect my performance in the classroom the same as another similar but “non-habitualized” task?…. interesting questions that came to mind while reading your article.

  5. October 21st, 2015 at 22:45 | #5

    I thought this post was interesting, because looking at the connection between the cognitive and motor processes, and how they relate to attention may lead to some very interesting findings. I think that you made some great points about executive resources, and how when those resources are tied up from your mind wandering, task performance decreases as well as performance on some simple task like sitting still. I do have some follow up question regarding the variability in fidgeting person-to-person. It is evident when you are sitting in class, giving or watching presentations, and sitting at dinner, there is a wide range in types of fidgeting as well as amount of fidgeting between people. Is that a measure of a person’s executive control? Attentional capacity? Inhibitory capabilities? Or something completely unrelated? There are various amounts of possibilities for why one person fidgets more or less than another. If we are thinking about this cognitively, it could be differences in individuals’ attentional capacities. If an individual has a smaller capacity, when mind wandering occurs and takes up attentional resources, there are even less resources available for holding still, allowing the person to fidget more. Now switch to someone with a a higher capacity, even when their mind wanders they may still have a bit more resources that can still attend to staying still. This is all theorizing from me, but I think it would be interesting to dive into this deeper and look into personal differences. But, great post Kelsey! Thanks for sharing!

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