Daydreaming and Goofing Off Might Be Good for You, a Stanford Psychologist Explains


We believe that the opposite of focus— daydreaming, goofing off, spacing out— is to be avoided. Worse yet, having problems focusing is seen as an obstacle to overcome and even as pathological. Self- help books and productivity bloggers strive to keep us on task with advice and hacks. 

When we fail to come up with the results we were hoping for, we wonder whether we just aren’t working or concentrating hard enough. We’ve come to consider focus and being on as “good,” and idleness— especially if it goes on for too long— as “bad” and unproductive. We feel guilty if we spend too much time doing nothing.

But in thinking this way, we make a fundamental mistake.

Truly successful people don’t come up with great ideas through focus alone. They are successful because they make time to not concentrate and to engage in a broad array of activities like playing golf. As a consequence, they think inventively and are profoundly creative: they develop innovative solutions to problems and connect dots in brilliant ways. Dwight Eisenhower logged more hours on the golf course than any other U.S. president yet is also regarded as one of the best presidents this country has ever had.

In a time and age when everyone is over-scheduled and over-focused, creativity is more and more prized— it’s the key to your effectiveness and success, in life and in business. It can also be a never- ending source of joy and happiness.

Here are three ways to “unfocus” for heightened creativity:

1. Diversify your activities

Experts suggest that the key to being idle or to unfocusing is to diversify our activities rather than being constantly focused on a single task. To get a new perspective on something, we actually need to disengage from it. We can diversify in two ways: through mindless tasks or through a broader set of experiences.

To disengage through unfocused tasks, break up time spent assimilating information and working on a task by inserting fifteen- minute periods of more mindless and less focused activity, like taking a shower or going for a quick walk (without concentrating on your cell phone) or doing some stretching, advises Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania.

“By taking that fifteen- minute period for mindlessness or daydreaming, your attention has been broadened and your mind is now able to make more creative connections between ideas. This cannot happen when you stay overly focused on a problem,” explains Kaufman.

Walking, in particular, appears to boost creativity. In a study appropriately titled “Give Your Ideas Some Legs,” researchers found that, both during the walks and right afterward, people scored higher on several different creativity tests.

You can also unfocus by broadening your experiential and intellectual horizons. According to Kaufman, anything that violates expectations of how the world works can boost creativity. For example, a semester spent studying abroad boosts students’ creativity. Why? New experiences that disrupt our usual way of life and show us a different perspective make us more mentally flexible or creative.

This explains the fascinating dynamics behind Innocentive, a platform for crowdsourcing genius solutions to complex problems submitted by research and development companies. These include everything from creating car accessories to enhancing the driving experience (a challenge submitted by Ford) to techniques for creating “earth independence,” whereby humans are able to survive in space for longer periods (a challenge submitted by NASA). Anyone can submit a solution, with winners receive financial compensation.

A research study out of Harvard headed by Karim Lakhani established that there was a higher probability of someone solving a problem submitted to Innocentive if that person was not an expert in that particular field, but was in a field that was marginally or not at all related.

“The further the problem was from the solver’s expertise,” Lakhani shared with the New York Times, “the more likely they were to solve it.”

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Source: The Washington Post | Emma Seppälä