Why Daydreaming And Downtime Can Be Secrets To Innovation

Sometimes you have to find creativity in a more roundabout way than attacking inspiration head-on.

Why Daydreaming And Downtime Can Be Secrets To Innovation
[Image: Flickr user jeronimo sanz]

Good news for daydreamers: letting your mind wander off task isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, it can often lead to more creative ideas.


At the core of personality psychology is a set of personality dimensions called The Big Five, which describe the five biggest sources of variation in behavior from person to person.

One of the Big Five is conscientiousness, which is the degree to which people tend to follow rules and complete tasks they start.

A common finding in research is that people who are consistently creative are rarely also highly conscientious.

Why is that?

Conscientious people are driven to stay on task. They get an assignment or attack a problem, and they stick with it.

But, creativity often requires a more circuitous route. After all, if we knew the innovative answer to the problem we are solving up front, it wouldn’t be innovative. Here are three reasons to be a little less diligent when you’re trying to innovate.


Let your memory settle.

When you get stuck in a setting that requires innovation, that means that you are not being reminded of anything that would help you to solve the problem. One reason why you may not be reminded of anything useful is that you are probably thinking about many of the ways that a particular problem has been solved in the past.

Memory is like a bunch of five-year-olds being picked for the kickball team–the loudest one gets picked first. The quietest get picked last. In memory, items both get activated and inhibit competing memories so that when you get stuck there is a chance that relevant information is being damped down by other memories competing to be accessed.

If you walk away from a problem for a while, you give your mental five-year-olds a chance to pick themselves up and dust themselves off. When you least expect it, one of those facts may suddenly spring forward with a new approach to the problem.

The power of mind wandering.

Creativity requires finding non-obvious ways to address a problem. Often, there is no direct link between the problem and the other knowledge you have that will help you to solve it. To find these indirect connections, it is valuable to let your mind wander without thinking directly about the problem.

There is a growing body of research on “unconscious thought.” Unconscious thought involves having some goal you are trying to achieve, but not working toward that goal explicitly.

Over time, some of the details of the problem begin to fade, and that leads to chains of associations in memory that may link the goal to other situations you have encountered. When you return to the thinking about the problem explicitly later, you may now discover connections you would not have found otherwise.


The knowledge you need.

The difficulty is that when you first learn something, you probably did not know that it was going to be useful.

People who are too conscientious need to have a good reason for everything they do. Consequently, they may shy away from having water-cooler conversations with colleagues that are not directly relevant to a current project.

They may not spend time reading about topics that are not clearly related to what they are working on. For this reason, people who are too driven to stay on task may have deep knowledge about their domain of expertise, but may not have a broad base of experience that will support real creativity.

All of this is not to say, of course, that being unconscientious is always a virtue. It is important for people to finish the tasks they start. But, a little time off task can pay real dividends down the line.