6 Ways To Harness The Power Of Daydreaming

If chasing inspiration down like prey hasn't worked, back off—letting your mind wander can bring the muses back to you.

When painting landscapes, Matisse would sometimes pause to study his subject matter and reflect on it. His peaceful pausing would arouse his subconscious mind and he could return to his canvas with clearer, fresher perspective.

Pausing is a powerful part of the creative process, whether it’s watching a distant sunset, strolling a nearby park, or taking a long shower.

Our brains need time to reflect and recharge. The act of pausing facilitates creative cognition and brings about those "aha" and "eureka" solutions.

"Sometimes this happens when you didn’t even know you were thinking about the problem," says Mark Beeman, a professor at Northwestern University’s cognitive neuroscience program. "It’s as if a light turns on and you suddenly see an answer to a problem that had stumped you."

Here are six ways to use pausing for more potent creativity:

1. Space out.

There’s much talk these days about mindfulness, which emphasizes attentiveness to the present. Mindfulness has strong mental and physical values, especially for primary tasks such as reading. However, recent studies show that not allowing the mind to also frequently wander can hinder creativity.

"Mind wandering seems to be very useful for planning and creative thought," said Dr. Jonathan Schooler, a researcher at the University of Santa Barbara in California’s department of psychological and brain sciences, during a CNN interview.

"It seems that allowing people an incubation period in which to let their mind wander really helps the creative process."

2. Hide out.

Seventy percent of offices now have open floor plans. These open workspaces are conducive to interacting and collaborating, but disruptive to pausing and pondering.

If you work in an open office, stake out a possible hideaway, a place you can dash to now and then for a few quiet minutes. Maybe it’s an empty conference room or unused office. A restroom stall or unused basement. Any secret space you can scamper to when you need to space out.

After I mentioned hideaways during a talk to an in-house creative group, one designer showed me a folding chair he had stashed away in the far corner of the building’s air conditioning and electrical room. "It can be loud, but I can be alone," he said.

3. Look up.

Next time you’re in an airport or coffee shop, check out people sitting around you—at least 75% will be looking down at smartphones or tablets. Just a few years ago, many of those same folks would have been gazing around or daydreaming. But the gravitational pull of screens now steals time from reflection and zoning out.

While few are likely to give up their devices, reminding yourself to occasionally pause and look up can help. Stare into space. Look out windows. Study ceilings. Leonardo encouraged his young followers to focus on random stains on walls. Maybe just close eyes and breathe. Ideas are in flight patterns around our brains, just waiting for clearance to land.

4. Walk around.

Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s most creative presidents, was a huge advocate of walking. "The object of walking is to relax the mind," he said. "You should not permit yourself even to think when you walk."

Walking provides a clear path for pausing. It’s a great way to free the mind, assuming our hands also remain free of cell phones and printed materials.

Author Robert MacFarlane describes walking as a full-body experience. "Mind and body function inseparably," he says, "such that thought becomes both site-specific and motion-sensitive."

And a persuasive endorsement for walking comes from poet Wallace Stevens, who wrote: "Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake."

5. Mulch down.

Pausing can be analogous to a fallow field—a calm, silent place of restoration, with imminent growth just below the surface.

"I am a compost heap," writes author Ann Patchett in The Getaway Car, "and everything I interact with, every experience I’ve had, gets shoveled onto the heap where it eventually mulches down…It’s from that rich, dark humus that ideas can start to grow."

6. Write down.

Pausing is fruitless if you don’t capture what pops up. Keep a notebook or pad handy for fleeting insights and ideas. When ideas come to legendary singer and songwriter Neil Young, he stops whatever he’s doing and writes them down.

"Those ideas are a gift," Young told interviewer Charlie Rose, "and you aren’t being respectful to the gift if you don’t pay attention and write it down."

Sam Harrison is a speaker, workshop leader and writer on creativity-related
topics and presentation skills. Find him at www.zingzone.com

[Image: Flickr user Luke Ma]

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  • You've nailed it! Pausing, day dreaming, pondering is a trait many of us have lost. When I'm stuck on a tough problem I usually find myself going and staring out a window ... just shutting down for a few minutes and starting to work ideas through my head. It's where my best ideas come from!

  • Love this! There is so much emphasis on being productive and efficient. It's nice to see the value of mulling things over articulated and appreciated.

  • Great Article! I don't think any of our best thoughts come from sitting behind our desks. Yes we need the "desk" to flesh out the thought or actually type up what we are thinking. But for me that is often the easy part. It is bringing the ideas together in a way they make sense that is difficult. On a recent trip, I was struggling with what to present to a group of college students on creativity. Finally I "gave up" trying to put something together. As I wandered around not really thinking, suddenly ideas came flying into my head. Luckily I was able to write it all down, as I don't know if I could have remembered it. So often those thoughts while inspired are fleeting.

  • Great article. Pausing I think relates much to what Steve Jobs talks about in how to be creative. It's being able to connect past experiences and knowledge in your subconscious with what's going on in the present moment. Creative people have either experienced more which means they have more knowledge to refer to. Or they spend more time thinking about their experiences.

  • CONGRATULATIONS SAM; This is one of the best articles that I have read on stimuli to induce creativity. It verbalizes my intuitive process and takes me back to where it all began for me. As a kid I studied art with a Japanese Master in the US. One day he asked me if I liked a painting and I said "no." He responded “why?” and I said, “I just don’t” his response, “never say no without figuring out why other wise you learn nothing.” Second event…actually there were several aha events I had while attending “The New School (for Social Research)” ...our assignment to place an egg in its shell in front of us and write a 5 page essay on what we saw! It was a good thing I had attended Parson’s School of Design. These creative thinking exercises have served me well as an executive coach, as the CEO of the Association of Corporate Executive Coaches, and as a professor in the field of leadership. Thank you, for the walk down memory lane.