From a young age, we are taught to believe in the power of sustained attention. It’s drilled into us that a good student is one who is attentive all through class, quiet except when asked a question, and quick to follow instructions. Daydreaming is not a skill that we are encouraged to develop.
As adults, when our minds wander, when we catch ourselves drifting off in thought—say, about what will happen on our favorite TV show or whether we remembered to leave a tip at lunch—rather than thinking about the task at hand, we feel guilty.
Research, however, suggests that mind wandering may not be a flaw after all. It may have important benefits when it comes to our performing the kinds of tasks that are among the most cognitively challenging to professionals: creative problem solving and long-term planning.
Creative problem solving is not something only people in creative fields have to do. Regardless of what we do for a living, all of us are faced with issues or problems that we haven’t encountered before and for which we need to find unique solutions. From a pediatrician who is trying to decide on the best and safest course of treatment for a tricky case to a manager who needs to design a process for the members of her team (all located in different countries) to effectively communicate with one another, professionals in every industry face complex tasks that require creative solutions.
Most of us assume that the best way to deal with a problem that requires a creative solution is to focus on it relentlessly. But a team of researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara has found that this might not be the case.
In a 2012 study, this research team asked 145 participants to perform what’s called an "unusual uses task," which is a test that for decades has been successfully utilized to measure degrees of creative problem solving. It involves presenting participants with a common object, like a bottle, and then giving them a limited amount of time to list as many uses as they can think of for that object. The participants’ performance is then scored based on the uniqueness of the answers.
All the participants in the study began by performing two unusual uses tasks. After they completed those, three groups were given a 12-minute "break." During the break, participants in one group were asked to do some cognitively demanding work that involved using their working memory. A second group was asked to perform a cognitively easier challenge, known to elicit mind wandering. A third group was asked to rest and do nothing during this 12-minute break. A fourth group was given no break at all.
Immediately after this 12-minute period, the first three groups were given a questionnaire, asking them to rate how frequently they focused on thoughts that were not related to the tasks assigned to them (e.g. ruminating about a worry that they had). In this way, the researchers could monitor that mind wandering did, in fact, occur, as they had expected. Then participants in all groups were asked to complete four more unusual uses tasks—two of these were exactly the same as the tasks they had completed before the 12-minute break, and the two others were completely new.
The researchers found that participants in the second group, who were asked to perform an easy cognitive challenge in between the unusual uses tasks, had, as expected, significantly more mind wandering than those in the first group, who were asked to perform a task with a more demanding working memory load. And sure enough, those in this second group—whose minds wandered the most—were the only participants who did better on the two unusual uses tasks that were the same as the tasks done before the break.
In other words, participants who did more mind wandering got more creative on the repeated unusual uses tasks; they came up with more creative solutions to the problems presented to them after they had some time to let their brains chew on them, so to speak. The other three groups—the one that performed the cognitively demanding work, the one that did nothing, and the one that was given no break at all—showed no improvement on the repeated unusual uses tasks.
It is worth noting that none of the four groups—including the group whose minds wandered most—showed any improvement on the new unusual uses tasks. This finding led the researchers to conclude that while mind wandering didn’t make the participants more creative in general, it helped them creatively solve the problems they had been working on before they started mind wandering.
The study suggests that if you want to solve a particularly difficult problem, letting your mind wander by engaging in an unrelated and cognitively easy task can help you find some creative solutions to that problem. The UC Santa Barbara research team even found evidence that people who daydream more frequently in everyday life are generally more creative.
So the next time you find your mind drifting away from a complex challenge or a problem you are trying to creatively solve, rather than yell at yourself for losing your focus just let it happen and reap the benefits of mind wandering.
If that’s not enough encouragement for you, consider that mind wandering seems to help with the highly challenging task of long-term planning. I’m sure that sounds paradoxical at first, but mind wandering helps with this because it enables us to think in the right ways about the future.
When your mind wanders, it’s like P. T. Barnum putting on a sideshow while the stage is being rebuilt. Enjoy the show, and when you turn back to the main stage, the next act will be ready to delight you.
Dr. Josh Davis is the director of research for at the NeuroLeadership Institute (NLI), a neurocoach, and a certified master practitioner in neurolinguistic programming (NLP). His new book, Two Awesome Hours: Science-Based Strategies To Harness Your Best Time And Get Your Most Important Work Done, published by HarperOne, is out now.