Any person who works on their own times knows about the productivity killer named day-dreaming. You’re writing, crafting, training, learning, and slowly start drifting away and into a thought or feeling. It happens, and I want to share some new insights I’ve gathered that reveal that contrary to popular belief, day-dreaming may actually help you when it comes to learning or solving problems.
It starts with one idea:
Thought is a fluid concept.
This insight I got from a book called The Open Mind by Dawna Markova, and one of the first chapters is about this idea that there’s not just one way to “think” or problem-solve but indeed many ways.
Also I just want to take this opportunity to appreciate you Moëra (Coach Trainer & Certified Wonderful Person) for recommending this book to me. 🙂
Check out her facebook page for daily inspiration folks.
So, Dawna Markova (Ph. D) is an internationally known expert in the fields of learning, perception, and asset-focus. She has established learning communities across the United States, leads workshops on maximizing individual and team talent and serves as works with CEOs and senior executives around the world. She has authored many books, including A Spot of Grace, I Will Not Die an Unlived Life, The Smart Parenting Revolution, The Open Mind. The book I’m drawing from today.
In the first part of her book she explains how thought is more fluid than we imagine. According to her (and you can verify that in your own experience):
Our attention may go from focused to diffuse (and back again) as a natural function of how the mind operates.
“Expanding, contracting, expanding, contracting, your mind moves like your lungs or heart; widening as it opens to digest and create new patterns in your unconscious mind, contracting as it concentrates to express them through your conscious mind.” Dawna Markova, The Open Mind
You’re sharing opinions with a friend around a coffee table. There’s a silence in conversation as you both sip on your drink. You know they weren’t finished with their thought, so you expect them to carry on. They put their cup down and take an in-breath as if to start speaking. (Your attention focuses in) They say something you’re able to understand and want to challenge them on. (Your mind relaxes) You decide to ask a question. (Your mind starts to wander) You find the general direction of your question and start thinking of the most eloquent way to ask it. (Your mind goes back into intense focus) You speak. They seem to be reflecting on what you’ve just said. (Their mind relaxes as they think of a response)
We tend to see being “lost in thought” or “confused” as “bad” states that either demonstrate incompetence, laziness or waste of time. But really this is just your mind going through it’s natural paces. Like switching gears.
She continues by explaining how:
Tasks that are linear tend to focus our attention, and tasks that are non-linear tend to diffuse our attention.
I want to define those two terms so we can continue this discussion on clear grounds.
According to the merriam webster dictionary:
Linear: Of, relating to, or based or depending on sequential development
So tasks that unfold in a sequential way are linear. A, then B, then C.. etc. In that order.
Linear vs Non-Linear is what you would understand as “mechanical” or “procedural” vs “artistic” or “creative”.
To bring back our coffee discussion example: As long as you’re only focused with one of your friend’s communication channels (say their words), then the act of listening will be linear.
A: Hear what they are saying
B: Then interpret
C: And finally put into context
The process of listening at this moment essentially involves going from A to B to C.
Now, what’s the sequence when you have to respond?
Well, I’m sure you’ll realize that there is no sequence. What’s the procedure for inventing something that doesn’t exist? … Again, I’m sure we can all agree that there is none. You just have to… do it. Somehow.
Innovating and coming up with ideas is a non-linear task, and our ability to actually do that is one of those perks we humans have over the animal kingdom.
You and I have the ability to engage in abstract thought.
And not only that, but it’s also interesting to note that there’s always many ways to complete a task that is non-linear. Sometimes even an infinite number of possibilities.
And if someone has ever asked you to “say something funny” or to do “that thing” you do and that only comes to you in moments of pure enlightenment, then you know what I’m talking about. 🙂 Non-linear tasks like tasteful humour and good music aren’t that simple to pull off, especially when you’re trying.
Some would say it’s those things you have to feel. (Or prepare for)
Driving a car involves a lot of different steps that you absolutely have to get right if you want to reach your destination. There’s no such thing as “freestyle” driving, at least not in the mechanical aspect of the act. Everybody everywhere follows the same sequence when they’re trying to get somewhere by car. You could say there’s a specific technique.
The reason we can apply a specific technique, or protocol to driving is that it’s a linear task. No creativity involved. There’s only one way to do it right.
This is why Dr Markova calls the frame of mind that is best suited for this sort of task the “one-way mind”.
” You’ve just experienced the state of mind that most people use to think in a linear, logical, rational, “reasonable” or, as some people refer to it, left-brained way. I call it the “one-way mind,” because in this state, we tend to be certain there is only one way to think about something, and we like to get right to the point. “ -Dawna Markova, The Open Mind
So what other ways of thinking are there?
Well, think of a time when you were weighing different options and going back and forth between them, in your mind.
“On the one hand, on the other hand…”
See here you realize that there it isn’t necessarily about finding that one way. It’s about considering options. It’s a transitional state, and you usually only stay in it for as long as you need before to, in order to come to a decision. When thinking in that way you are being flexible, and you allow yourself to consider alternatives. Actually you might even discover new ways of doing things here.
” Wait… yeah. I guess that could be valid. “
Now you start to get ideas.
But this only becomes possible if you allow yourself to sit in the sometimes uncomfortable-ness of this particular state for long enough:
“Change from this state is actually effected by taking time to step back and reflect, by not deciding until the information is sorted and completely digested, by taking a “wait-and-see” attitude. Giving ourselves time to be here, to wait and not know, is crucial to healing, and often uncomfortable until we get used to it.” -Dawna Markova, The Open Mind
Discomfort precedes breakthrough.
When exposed to massive amounts of information, you’re going to have to be okay with feelings confused, perplexed or even overwhelmed. It doesn’t mean you’re dumb, it means your brain is working the way it should. Again, just your mind going through it’s natural paces.
(Hello students! )
Take a break, take it slow. This is your brain chewing on information, and at that point one of three things can happen:
A: You come back to a state of total focus
B: You allow yourself to ponder some more
C: You sink even deeper into thought (maybe without even realizing it)
Now, exhibit C is where I’m really trying to get at with this hefty piece of writing. This is the day-dream state, or the unconscious mind as Dr Markova calls it.
“You probably learned to apologize for thinking this way in school, for “day- dreaming,” and not paying attention to the teacher. In fact, in this state, your brain was processing what you were learning, searching internally for how the new information fit with what you already had experienced, making new patterns from it, storing information for the long-term, and dreaming new possibilities for the future. Here you think about the way things could be.” Dawna Markova, The Open Mind
Now, I find that interesting. Here’s why:
“Processing what you were learning, searching internally for how the new information fit with what you already had experienced, making new patterns from it, storing information for the long-term, and dreaming new possibilities for the future.”
That sounds like the benefits we receive from actual sleep. I mean that much is known. (Read: Why You Really Should Sleep On It on WebMD)
Also, we know the brain produces theta waves during day-dreams as well as during actual sleep.
It’s interesting to note the cognitive similarities that exist between being lost in thought, and actually being asleep.
I just find that fascinating to think about.
But if you ever wondered why good ideas often come out of the blue, or after a good night’s sleep, well now you’ve got the answer. Even while you day-dream (or sleep), your brain is “thinking” things through.
And that’s why day-dreaming good for you.
So don’t listen to your highschool teachers, go ahead and take that “mini-break” while you work if you do feel like it. Let your mind wander, and just trust your globe. That’s how you get creative juices flowing. 🙂
“I would say that the simple reason why the majority of scientists are not creative is not because they don’t know how to think but because they don’t know how to stop thinking.
-Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now.“
Want to learn more?
A bit more on the science behind this idea:
And pick up The Open Mind by Dawna Markova while you’re at it. There’s more in there about personality, understanding yourself, and relating to others.