Sometimes, I’ll be driving around town, and I’ll snap back into reality. “How did I get here?” I’ll say to myself. My mind wasn’t just wandering; it had gone on vacation. According to Business Insider, you can daydream for as much as 70% when driving on an uncrowded highway and 30% at any given time.
I often tend to forget what I’ve been daydreaming about. It’s a shame because a lot of the most creative people on the planet are serial daydreamers. J.R.R Tolkein famously produced the Lord of the Rings as a bored professor marking papers. The image of Harry Potter came to J.K Rowling while she was daydreaming on a delayed four-hour train.
Why Mind-Wandering Can Be Useful
If we always had only one thought on our minds, life would be quite stop-start. When I’m driving, if I only think about the gear change I have to make, I’m going to forget I need to fill the gas tank up. As Business Insider puts it:
“Mind-wandering allows one part of the brain to focus on the task at hand, and another part of the brain to keep a higher goal in mind.”
It is perhaps the closest thing we have to multi-tasking — and that’s a good sign. You don’t want even to attempt multitasking, as you can’t do it. There have been numerous studies outlining the detrimental effects it can have on your ability to concentrate. In particular, a study from York University in the UK found that multitaskers scored 11% lower than those who weren’t multitasking in a standard comprehension test. The researchers found that even sitting next to someone who is multitasking can limit your comprehension by 17%.
In The 10x Rule, Grant Cardone says your next step is more important than the last one. When you allow your mind to wander, you’re keeping one hand on the wheel while thinking about the approaching corner. You need both to survive. Moreover, researchers at UC Santa Barbara have found mind-wanderers to be a lot more creative and better problem solvers than those who have a singular focus. You’re letting your brain free for a little while.
In her TED talk, Elizabeth Gilbert — author of Eat Pray Love — speaks about an interview she did with musician Tom Waits. When driving along the freeway in Los Angeles, he “hears this little fragment of melody, that comes into his head as inspiration often comes, elusive and tantalizing, and he wants it, it’s gorgeous, and he longs for it, but he has no way to get it.” He stopped and said, “can’t you see I’m driving?” It’s funny, but it goes to show the power of a wandering mind.
We are often at our most creative when we don’t try to be. Some of my best creative ideas have come when I’m clearing my mind before I sleep. The other day, I thought of an idea just as I lied down to do a bench press at the gym. You cannot tame the daydreaming mind. You can, however, nurture it.
How to Influence Your Mind Wandering
The New York Times says you should never schedule a time for daydreaming. I agree as that would defeat its entire purpose. A daydream needs to be a natural ooze of creative thoughts. Any attempt to force it will be unnatural and lead to creative decay. That being said, you can trigger it. You can then “marinate” your thoughts, Inc.com writes:
“A daydream lets certain ideas and issues “marinate” in our unconscious minds.”
To marinate your ideas and issues like a professional chef, you need to engage in a tedious task. As I’ve mentioned, driving can help clear the mind and allow you to focus on more significant problems in your life. As I am used to exercising, I sometimes take a break from work and do 25 press-ups or walk around the block. It’s like getting past a video game mission you can’t get past. You spend hours failing, then you come back another time and do it within minutes.
One of the problems lies within our conditioning. We have been hardwired into valuing hard work, so silence and nothingness are taboo. They’re deemed sinfully unproductive and terrify us. F. R. Kets de Vries, a professor of leadership development and organizational change, says we “protect ourselves from these terrors with noise and frantic activity."
To ultimately unlock the power of your wandering mind, master the art of nothing. De Vries claims the top executives find nothing to be good for their mental health — and they’re some of the busiest people on Earth. He says daydreaming leads the executives “to regions of the mind that they are otherwise busily avoiding.”
The key? Striking a balance between boring and nothing. With absolute nothingness, your mind might wander too far, and your thoughts may become negative. For effective daydreaming, try to keep things positive. Your brain will be able to go down more optimistic avenues, improving productivity and creativity, according to the Harvard Business Review.
You can find inspiration in the dullest of moments. When your mind switches off, the secret doors creak open, and the creative pathways make themselves known. So the next time someone says you “daydream too much,” you have every right to rebuke them. Just as you need to stretch your legs and exercise to stay healthy, your mind needs a wander. Without it, you’d be fairly robotic.