I sit at my desk, a warm mug of tea in my hands, and look out the window to my left. Across the narrow road is a wheat field, and peeking above the hedgerow I can see the pale green sprouts of the winter wheat that has recently burst through the soil. Beyond a row of trees, about a half mile away, is a gently curving hill, with more trees framed against the sky.
As I look out the window, my eyes wander, and so does my mind. I unfocus my view, and my thoughts start drifting – moving from one idea to another, seemingly at random. As I do this, I let my imagination go free: free of the constraints that I impose on thoughts, free of the need to think of anything specific. It’s a wonderful feeling to not clutch at thoughts, to allow ideas to spring up unfettered.
Since I work from home, and live in a rural area, I enjoy my surroundings and use them as a catalyst to help spawn ideas. I daydream. Not everyone has this kind of view. For many years, the only view I had was a cityscape, a parking lot, or, often, nothing other than a wall. But I would still get into this state of free thinking, eyes closed if necessary, to spur on my creativity.
Daydreaming: Wandering eyes
“Stop daydreaming!” A teacher might yell this at a pupil, whose eyes are wandering out the window during a boring class. Remember those classes where you weren’t motivated, and you let your mind wander? This lack of focus is generally considered to be a bad thing, but people are re-learning how daydreaming contributes to creativity, how it allows ideas to arise naturally with no censor.
I’m old enough to have grown up before cable TV and video games, and remember well when, as kids, there was nothing to do. We’d complain, and we’d sit around, indoors or out, thinking the thoughts of the young. We were bored, and when the mind is bored it goes back to what neuroscientists now say is its default state: that of seemingly random thoughts arising in a slow, ever-changing mosaic of ideas.
I often get into this state when I’m preparing to write an article. I know what I’m writing about, but allowing my mind to wander a bit lets my subconscious organize the ideas that have been brewing in the background and allow them to bubble to the surface.
You may daydream in your chair, when you walk, or even when you are at the gym; as long as you don’t need to focus on a specific task – such as driving or creating a spreadsheet – your mind reverts to this state of generating new thoughts and ideas. Some people can even daydream when they play music; Einstein played the violin to help him solve intractable problems. And Darwin had his “thinking path,” a walk near his home that he would follow twice a day, and use for “hard thinking,” or letting his mind wander as he kicked stones.
Not all productivity can be measured
In this productivity-driven world, where we often measure quantity rather than quality, and dutifully cross off accomplished tasks on checklists, we have less time to daydream. Yet science has shown that daydreaming for even a few minutes helps people come up with new ideas, and be more creative. Even daydreaming during meetings has benefits.
We used to have more time to daydream. Perhaps on our daily commute, when waiting on line in a bank or supermarket, or sitting in a doctor’s waiting room. Now, we all have smartphones, and take them out to fill the space, to stave off boredom. Yet if we were to allow ourselves more time to just think, we might be more relaxed, more creative, and more efficient.
Some business culture thrives on the idea that one must work long days, surviving on pizza and energy drinks. Elon Musk recently said on Twitter that “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week,” but this culture of exhaustion stifles creativity.
There are way easier places to work, but nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week — Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 26, 2018
We need the space to detach from our work, from our devices and screens, and rediscover the ability to let our minds soar. To allow our subconscious to tell us about the things it has been cogitating while we were busy thinking.
When we return to focus, we don’t remember everything that went on while daydreaming; the purpose isn’t to churn out lists of thoughts, but to slowly sculpt concepts and plans without structure. When we come back to our task at hand, our minds can be fresher, more supple, more able to generate unexpected ideas.