Taking a shower. Going for a walk. Daydreaming while you stare out of your office window. Sounds mundane, right? These humdrum moments can seem insignificant, but they’re often times that produce creative solutions. And these situations all have something in common; they involve letting your mind wander.
Think back to the last time you had to solve a problem. Maybe you’re a designer who’s poured over a roadblock in a layout. You fixated on each component of your design, forcing yourself to not walk away until you figure it out. You resolve to “tough it out.”
Or maybe you’re a developer. You’ve wrote and rewrote the same line of code, convinced each time you have all the characters in their proper places, combined in the right way to produce the outcome you’re after. But it still doesn’t work.
It might seem natural to fixate on the details of the problem at hand, to “burn the midnight oil” in order to come up with new ideas. But research shows this kind of forced problem solving is counterproductive to creativity.
“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,” Paul Crosby wrote in a blog post.
What this means, is that we can’t overwork our minds in the same way we’re used to for cognitive problem solving. Even though creativity is a form of solving challenges, it requires an at-ease state of the mind for new ideas to form.
A more helpful approach? Walk away from the task, and let your mind wander.
“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.”
The brain was made to think. It’s unique ability to gather, process, and remember information, and then connect the dots to form new ideas is done without prompting.
So then, supporting the mind’s natural ebb and flow of critical thinking, stepping away, and reconvening back to the task at hand isn’t an act of distraction or laziness, it’s more conducive to creative thinking.
But alas, there’s a decent amount of us who can’t get past the feeling that this approach is counterproductive. More than seeming insignificant, moments where your mind wanders can be frustrating. Our cultural norm of workaholism would say that distraction is not “productive” and an “inability to focus” doesn’t get work done. Worse than that, a wandering mind is assumed to be a cognitive waste of time or a lack of mental control.
In fact, this article took longer than we thought necessary to finish, due to mental blocks and unclear direction. By practicing what we’ve preached in this post, stepping away and allowing ourselves to unplug from the task allowed us to come back refreshed and reinspired.
As Lindsay Kolowich writes, “Arthur Fry came up with the idea for Post-It Notes when he was daydreaming in church. Albert Einstein came up with his theory of relativity only when he let his mind wander away from the mathematics.”
At the risk of comparing the importance of physics to a blog post, it’s enlightening to see how these two varying dilemmas are solved with one simple shift.
So if you’re reading this, currently browsing the web to get away from your problematic task at hand, we get you. But now that you’ve filled your mind with new information, we challenge you to look away from your device, take a breath, and dream a little.