Can Daydreaming be Productive?

You’re staring out your office window…lost in thought about your upcoming dinner party…when you jerk back to reality: “Oops, where was I?” you think, as you look down once again at the report on your desk.  You’ve been daydreaming.

Daydreaming can be a real productivity bandit, especially when you’re supposed to be focusing on a higher-priority project.  Excessive daydreaming can waste precious time that could be better spent on other things. But daydreaming isn’t always bad.  There’s a difference between true daydreaming as the brain’s response to overload or boredom and thinking time that may lead to promising ideas.

How do you ensure daydreaming time is productive time?

Don’t use daydreaming to procrastinate.  Daydreaming can be a good tool for transitioning to a new project during the day.  It gives your brain a chance to change gears.  Figuratively, your mind puts away the file on the last task, takes a break, and gets ready to open a new file and begin work.  However, when you find your mind wandering when you’re supposed to be concentrating on a task, self-discipline is required to stay focused.

Select your designated “daydreaming place.”  Some of my best ideas come to me when I’m flying, when my body and brain are still.  Taking time in a place with no distractions gives your brain the opportunity to discover creative ideas and new solutions to problems.  You may find walking the dog, washing dishes, driving in the car, exercising, or reading the perfect time to develop new processes or plan projects.

Spend an appropriate amount of time.  For the most effective brainstorming, choose a place or activity that takes no less than 15 minutes and no more than 60 minutes.  You want your brain to have time to rummage through the closets of your mind, but not so much time that you’re wasting time unnecessarily.

Approach your daydreaming place with purpose.  Before you go to your daydreaming place, have a problem ready to mull over in your mind.  Without the normal distractions, your brain will be free to explore new possibilities.  By the end of your walk or plane ride, you may have discovered an innovative solution to that issue.

Use paper to capture the results of daydreaming.  By writing down your ideas, you won’t immediately forget them, and you can see them all at one time.  Now you can look for relationships among your thoughts.  Ask questions such as, “What causes X?” “What are the results of X?” “With what things is X related?” “What’s behind this?” “Is this leading anywhere else?” “Who else might be affected?”  I like to use a mind map with clusters of items, details, examples, and lines connecting them.

People don’t often allow themselves the opportunity to think about challenging situations, because they’re going ninety miles an hour all day long.  And our culture and current work ethic doesn’t condone thinking time.  But effective daydreaming can synthesize the volumes of information that flow across your desk, the phone lines, and through your brain every day.