Strategic Daydreaming: How to Let Your Mind Wander So You Can Make Smarter Decisions

Strategic Daydreaming: How to Let Your Mind Wander So You Can Make Smarter Decisions

Most people think master problem solvers carefully analyze possible solutions and logically arrive at the best result. While logic and critical thinking play significant roles in problem-solving, creativity is just as important.

However, even the most mentally flexible professionals can struggle to call upon their creativity — especially at the end of the long workday.

Daydreaming makes people more productive because it taps into the subconscious and encourages creativity. You just have to learn how to do it well.

With a little strategic daydreaming, you can come up with more creative solutions to the problems you face, and feel more relaxed in the process.

Most Minds Wander Throughout the Day

Daydreaming isn’t something most people have to actively try, but channeling it into something productive can require practice.

“As much as 50 percent of daily cognition is spent on spontaneous cognition — basically daydreaming or mind wandering," Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman tells CNN. “This 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."

Daydreaming isn’t something our minds slip into, either; researchers have found that it’s actually our brain’s default mode. When we’re not actively asking our brains to focus on a particular task, the daydreaming parts of our brains kick in to subconsciously solve problems or work through situations.

“Daydreams are thoughts that people have that aren’t tied to the external environment or whatever they’re currently doing,” Felicity Callard writes for the World Economic Forum.

“Thinking about an email you need to reply to when you’re reading this article, mentally planning your day on the work commute, or thinking about an argument with a loved one during a meeting are all examples of daydreaming, which often occur spontaneously as part of the stream of consciousness.”

Almost Everyone Daydreams

Lindsay Kolowich writes that 96 percent of adults report daydreaming on a daily basis, which is pretty compelling proof that our minds aren’t meant to narrowly focus on the tasks in front of us. She has a couple of powerful examples of daydreaming’s power, too:

  • Albert Einstein came up with the theory of relativity when he let his mind wander away from the math he was working on.

  • Nobel Prize winner Kary Mullis figured out how to duplicate DNA fragments while driving down the highway.

Many people focus on how pressured they feel to solve problems instead of thinking how to solve the problems themselves. With strategic daydreaming, we tap our subconsciouses to solve problems while resting our brains.    

Daydreaming Recharges Your Brain

Daydreaming shouldn’t be viewed as an enemy of productivity or a sign of a lazy employee. In short bursts, daydreaming can boost your confidence or reveal a plan of action that might not have been obvious before.  

“In a culture obsessed with business and goals, indulging in a bit of free-flowing, internally generated imagery can undoubtedly contribute to a balanced, healthy lifestyle,” Christina Lavers writes.

There are also psychological benefits of daydreaming that help people perform in the long run.

Daydreaming Refuels Our Brains

“Solutions come to the brain through nonlinear abstraction, often putting together information which was not connected before — an activity similar to sleep,” Dr. Fiona Kerr tells the Telegraph.

“This is mainly due to wave patterns such as alpha and gamma combining with chemicals such as acetylcholine and dopamine to top the brain back up and neutrally reset it, allowing for new insights.”

If you have ever felt like your brain was drained after a long day, then a combination of rest and creative daydreaming can help refuel it.

Daydreaming Boosts Memory Power

“The more we daydream, the more our brain is able to both hold onto and remember things when we are being bombarded from all sides by all kinds of noise, information input, and conflicting demands," says F. Diane Barth.

Barth notes that daydreaming works to filter out the noise and focus our minds on important information and end goals. By tapping into the power of strategic daydreaming, employees can better prepare themselves for major challenges and handle stressors better.

How Can You Daydream Strategically?

Tapping into the power of daydreaming doesn’t mean you have to clear your schedule to and spend hours away from your work. By following the eight tips below, you can slot daydreaming time into your everyday routine, develop that skill and turn it into a productive habit.

1. Identify the Best Times to Daydream

Modern psychologists are studying how people in high-pressure situations can use daydreaming to their advantage. Michael Kane at the University of North Carolina Greensboro monitored 274 college students over a week and prompted them several times to record their activities and thoughts.

The goal was to see when students daydreamed, and how they performed in various tasks because of it.

“Students whose minds wandered during tests in the lab tended to be worried — they were anxiously thinking about problems, not focusing on the task at hand,” Ephrat Livni writes of Kane’s experiment at Quartz. “But the people whose minds wandered frequently in real life weren’t brooding; they were dreaming when the context allowed it, and they were more often able to focus in the lab test context.”

Look for times in your day when you can let your mind wander. This might happen during your commute or when you’re completing a mundane task. Daydreaming while you’re on autopilot can reduce your stress in high-pressure situations.  

2. Step Away from the Task At Hand

Dr. Josh Davies has found that most professionals think the best way to come up with creative solutions is to focus on the problem relentlessly. However, he found a study out of UC Santa Barbara that proves otherwise.

The research team there asked 145 participants to complete creative problem-solving tasks after dividing them into four groups:

  • The first group performed an assignment that kept them active but let their minds wander before solving the problem.

  • The second group rested without anything assigned to them before solving the problem.

  • The third group was immediately asked to solve the creative problem.

  • The fourth group was assigned a task that required an intense focus that prevented them from daydreaming before solving the problem.

The group that was given time to let their minds wander performed significantly better over the other groups — including the ones who were able to rest.

If you’re struggling to complete an assignment or solve a problem, walk away for a short time to reduce the pressure of coming up with the best solution.

3. Don’t Let Technology Distract You

“Picking up your smartphone and encountering a barrage of new information overwhelms your brain,” Will Yakowicz writes at Inc. “But if you let your mind wander, it can subtly tackle the challenge by making connections you wouldn't be able to when actively thinking about things.”

By completing light tasks that don’t require a lot of focus or brain activity — like washing coffee mugs in the break room or testing your pens to see which ones have dried out — you can relax your brain and free up space for creative thought.

4. Schedule Time In Your Day for Daydreaming

“A recent survey found that people spend 51.8 hours staring at screens every week,” Chris Bailey writes. “The mind resists boredom when the alternative is so stimulating.”

Bailey encourages readers to actively schedule time in their schedules to daydream. This is hard in a world of deadlines and endless projects, but setting aside 15 to 30 minutes for a pure mental break can help you refresh and give your mind time to wander.

Scheduling time to daydream also requires you to put aside any guilt about taking breaks. Courtney Seiter reports that 90 percent of bosses encourage employees to take breaks and 86 percent of employees think breaks are productive, but 25 percent of employees never take a break other than lunch. In this case, daydreaming can be a productive break. You’re mentally solving problems in your head while refueling your brain to keep working throughout the day.

5. Visualize the Best Possible Outcomes

creative business analysis

“Here’s the amazing part about visualization — your brain literally can’t tell the difference between an action you performed and an action you visualized,” Carrie Green writes in her book She Means Business.

Green encourages people to fully visualize what they want to get out of a situation — like acing an important presentation or asking for a raise — down to minute details. This helps your brain visualize that success is within arm’s reach.

Doing this will boost your confidence and, at the very least, prevent you from visualizing the scenarios in which everything goes wrong.

6. Daydream Before You Start Your To- Do List

“Next time you’re charged with finishing a number of tasks, allow your mind to wander freely as you decide which to tackle first,” Kayla Matthews writes at the Huffington Post. “Give yourself the freedom to freely associate, but don’t allow yourself to daydream so long that you lose sight of your daily goals.”

Managers can also help employees tap into strategic daydreaming by giving them the autonomy to prioritize their own tasks, or by giving them end goals and allowing them to find their own solutions for achieving them.

7. Pick Up a Pen and Draw

Studies have found that people who doodle when listening to someone speak retain more of what they hear. So next time you’re sitting in an endless board meeting or feel tempted to play Candy Crush while on a conference call, grab a pen instead.

“Doodling about something related to what you are trying to remember is more likely to qualify as intentional mind wandering, which can help you focus on the task at hand,” Caroline Williams writes at New Scientist. “Don’t be too elaborate, however — if your doodles become too engaging, the whole thing might backfire.”

8. Pretend You’re a Different Character

Dr. Srini Pillay encourages people to pretend they’re someone else when they’re trying to come up with a new solution. Taking on a different role, whether the character is fictional or real, requires you to think in a different way and approach the situation from a new angle.

“When you’re stuck in a creative process, unfocus may also come to the rescue when you embody and live out an entirely different personality,” Pillay writes. “People who try to solve creative problems are more successful if they behave like an eccentric poet than a rigid librarian.”

From a workplace perspective, you might pretend to be an eccentric poet to come up with solutions, or choose a more relatable personality such as your boss. This process makes you think like someone new and forces you out of your headspace.

The next time you feel overwhelmed or pressured to come up with solutions, take a step back. Let your mind wander. You might find that giving yourself time to daydream can help you relax, organize your thoughts and come up with a plan without even realizing it.

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