Let Your Mind Wander: How Daydreaming Makes You More Creative

by John Haltiwanger

When I was in the midst of writing my master's thesis, I came up with all of my best ideas when I was in the shower.

"How convenient," I remember thinking, "I'm in the one place where I don't have a pen." I'd have to rush out, find something to write on and try to remember whatever stroke of genius had come to me whilst I was busy shampooing.

This happened repeatedly.

It took me around half a year to finish my thesis, a 15,000 word project. I'd spend hours reading over what I'd written, or hyper-focusing on research. Yet, I found my most original thoughts came when I wasn't working or thinking at all.

When I allowed my mind wander, it was unconsciously processing all of the information I'd shoved into it. In turn, I was more imaginative when I wasn't focusing on anything in particular.

I had multiple ideas running around in my head that were meant to be together, but intense focus kept them apart. When I stopped concentrating, they finally found one another, like long lost relatives.

In other words, I was at my most creative when I was daydreaming.

Let your mind wander, it will end up in wonderful places.

Daydreaming is a lot like wandering around a brand new city with no particular destination in mind. You might end up somewhere boring, or perhaps even someplace dangerous.

But you could also make a magnificent discovery. Indeed, sometimes we have to stray off the beaten path in order to see the way forward.

Research has shown that daydreaming, also known as spontaneous cognition or mind wandering, is crucial to fostering creativity and innovation.

Rappers with a talent for free-styling, for example, have exhibited heightened activity in the section of the brain associated with mind wandering.

By allowing our minds to wander aimlessly, they lead us into uncharted territory, where the possibilities are endless.

Our brains are wired in such a way that mind wandering is necessary for connecting ostensibly dissimilar or unrelated ideas.

In spite of this, conventional wisdom tells us discipline and focus are what lead to productivity and success. From a young age, we're taught daydreaming is a waste of time.

We all likely have memories of teachers or parents yelling at us for not paying attention when our minds were off somewhere else.

Yet, as Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman, adjunct associate professor of psychology at New York University, told CNN:

[Daydreaming] is where things like problem solving, creativity, goal driven thought, future planning, seeing the perspective of another person, and so on - find space to exist. Aha moments don't come from a directed and particular focus on a task, but by letting your mind wander and open up to other possibilities.

Simply put, we gain insight and enlightenment by letting our minds wander. Daydreaming cultivates the introspection we need to produce new ideas.

Daydreaming, which encompasses half of our daily thoughts, is fundamental to productivity and creativity alike.

Daydreaming is just as important as focus.

In today's world, we are constantly inundated with information. There's been no other point in human history that our brains have experienced this much stimulation.

The digital age has completely changed the way we exist as a species. It's no secret we spend a huge portion of our day looking at screens, and it's difficult to comprehend everything we're ingesting in the process.

In fact, a 2011 study suggests the amount of information we encounter each day is equivalent to around 174 newspapers. This means we receive fives times more information per day than we did in 1986.

What does all this mean? For one, we could all benefit from putting down our smartphones. We need to allow our minds some time to process all we have absorbed throughout the day. Think of this as a form of meditation -- a way of returning to the present.

We also need to stop viewing boredom as the enemy. "I'm bored" is another way of saying, "I'm uncomfortable with my own thoughts."

We've become so conditioned to reach for our phones whenever we begin to feel bored. In the process, we don't take the time to really contemplate the world around us. This leads to increased stress and lower levels of productivity and inventiveness.

Not to mention, boredom is vital to creativity, as it's the ultimate catalyst for daydreaming. This is precisely why it's so important to take breaks, and in many forms.

As neurologist Daniel J. Levitin highlights:

The processing capacity of the conscious mind is limited...If you want to be more productive and creative, and to have more energy, the science dictates that you should partition your day into project periods. ...Several studies have shown that a walk in nature or listening to music can trigger the mind-wandering mode. This acts as a neural reset button, and provides much needed perspective on what you're doing. Daydreaming leads to creativity, and creative activities teach us agency, the ability to change the world, to mold it to our liking, to have a positive effect on our environment.

Simply put, when you're stressed at work, go on a 10 minute walk. When life is overwhelming, take that vacation you've been putting off. Or when writing a paper is driving you insane, let it be for awhile, and go on a run.

Sometimes we need to completely forget about a problem in order to solve it. Everyone requires mental downtime. Give your brain a rest. In the process, you'll explore the true extent of its capabilities.

Citations: The Importance of Daydreaming (Time), Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain (The New York Times ), Welcome to the information age 174 newspapers a day (The Telegraph), Teach Kids to Daydream (The Atlantic ), Daydream believer Is a wandering mind a creative mind (CNN)