In school, we are taught to pay attention. Daydreaming is considered a nuisance rather than a skill that should be developed. The art of sustained concentration is prized to the point where, as adults, we feel guilty when we find ourselves daydreaming at work. However, research suggests daydreaming may not be a flaw, but instead can yield important benefits when performing challenging tasks in a professional environment.
Regardless of the field we work in, at some point we are all required to think up a unique solution to a particularly challenging problem or situation we have never encountered before. Obsessing over the problem, or staring at your computer screen in the hopes of seeing the answer, may not be the best way to find a solution. Taking a break, going for a walk or just looking off into space can give your mind the break it needs to let inspiration take root. Allowing the mind to wander is, therefore, essential to creative problem solving, and is a crucial skill to develop in the world of business.
The Neuroscience of Daydreaming
When you daydream you are doing some of your most creative work. In 2009, neuroscientists conclusively proved that our brains do their best work when they wander. The right hemisphere of the brain makes connections between seemingly unrelated things, which burst forward as sudden insights. This mysterious process results in our most creative thinking, and takes place when we are not trying to think creatively. Errant daydreaming enables unexpected connections to form, which is the essence of creativity.
Additionally, a 2012 study at the University of California at Santa Barbara found people who daydream more in everyday life are generally more creative. 145 participants performed two “unusual uses tasks,” which have been used for decades to measure degrees of creative problem solving. Subjects were given an ordinary object and made to list as many different uses for it as possible in a set amount of time. Scores were based on the uniqueness of the answer. Between each task, participants were broken into 4 groups to perform varying degrees of cognitively taxing work during a break period. Subjects were then given a second unusual uses task.
Results revealed the group that was given mildly taxing work did the most daydreaming in between tasks, and was the only group who did better on the second task than they had before the break. Participants who did the most daydreaming came up with more creative solutions to problems because they were given time to think about them in a separate non-taxing environment.
While allowing the mind to wander doesn’t necessarily make someone more creative when encountering a new task, it can help them to creatively solve the problems they were working on before letting their mind wander. Therefore, taking a break to allow yourself to daydream can help you find creative solutions, and perhaps even be the place where you do your best work.
Harnessing the Power of Daydreaming
Not all daydreaming is created equal. Letting your mind wander aimlessly will not necessarily produce any practical results, but purposeful mind wandering can yield productive creativity. Pausing is a powerful part of the creative process. If substantial attention is paid to a specific problem before letting your mind wander, it is more likely that your mind will produce useful insights. Therefore, if you are stuck, the best thing to do is walk away from the problem. The solution will only come when you stop looking for it.
As Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, writes, “It’s the problems that really seem impossible, where there’s no feeling of knowing, no sense of a solution, no sense of progress—those really hard problems are most likely going to be solved by long walks, showers, meditation, games of ping pong…those kinds of things.”
Mindfulness – emphasizing attentiveness to the present – has strong mental and physical benefits, but studies show that not allowing the mind to wander can hinder creativity. Brains need time to reflect and recharge, so taking the time to space out, hide out, look up and walk around on occasion is vital. Open plan office spaces are conducive to collaboration, but can be disruptive to pondering. Find a place to hideaway for a few quiet minutes when you need to be alone with your thoughts. Also, take the time to look up from your smartphone or tablet, as their gravitational pull steals from your reflective time.
The trick to daydreaming productively is to remain aware enough to recognize a good idea when it comes along and to always be prepared for inspiration to strike. Keep a note book handy to jot down ideas when they pop into your head. Walking is a great way to clear the mind, as thought can often be motion-sensitive. You will want to keep your hands free from devices or reading materials to ensure your mind is able to wander without distraction, but even in this circumstance it is important to have writing materials in your pocket. A wandering mind won’t produce any results unless you can document an insight when it happens.
If chasing inspiration isn’t working, and you just aren’t able to find a solution to the problem that has been nagging you for days, take a step back. Letting your mind wander can bring inspiration back to you.
“Sometimes this happens when you didn’t even know you were thinking about the problem,” says Mark Beeman, a professor for Northwestern University’s cognitive neuroscience program. “It’s as if a light turns on and you suddenly see an answer to a problem that had stumped you.”
So, instead of forcing yourself to focus the next time you find your mind drifting at work, let it happen and reap the rewards.