Daydream Genius

Mind wandering at Timothy Lake in Oregon
“It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much, doing nothing, really doing nothing.” — Gertrude Stein

How can we harness the power of wasting time?

The poet Mary Ruefle describes time-wasting in terms of being distracted. For her, distraction is the antidote to all that concentration it requires to be effective. Wasting time, then, sets our minds to pasture, lets them wander so we can return to our tasks refreshed and restored. This is part of the creative process, she asserts. Psychologists call this wasted time Volitional Positive Constructive Daydreaming. Researchers also refer to this as mind wandering, task-unrelated thought, zoning out, or stimulus-independent thought. We’ll shorthand it simply as daydreaming.

Daydream research was pioneered by Jerome L. Singer, whose 1975 book The Inner World of Daydreaming launched a psychological subfield of daydreaming inquiry. Singer describes three ways of daydreaming:

  • positive constructive daydreaming, characterized by playful and hopeful imagery and creative ideation
  • guilty-dysphoric daydreaming, characterized by obsessive, anxious fantasizing
  • poor attentional control, characterized by agitated distraction and an inability to concentrate on one’s thoughts or tasks

Clearly, the latter two are also time wasters, albeit not useful ones. Heaven knows how much time I’ve squandered stressing out over emails and account management snafus. Personal experience indicates that these particular distractions deliver unproductive side effects. But positive constructive daydreaming, Ruefle’s wasted time, is associated with a slew of mental benefits. Letting your mind aimlessly wander and openly wonder does more than relieve boredom. Singer’s questionnaire and interview studies and more recent brain scan research indicate that daydreaming encourages open-ended future planning and situation rehearsal; increases creativity; strengthens problem solving abilities; promotes the synthesis of disparate streams of thought; allows us to create meaning from thoughts, experiences, and events; enhances learning; and increases compassion and empathy.

Daydream scientists agree that mind wandering is an essential ingredient for a healthy inner life. And, happily, this important activity occurs mostly involuntarily. But it’s also something we can actively choose to do. We can decide to disengage from tasks at hand and turn our attention inward, switch from awareness to meta-awareness, from outer to inner. Volitional mind wandering — choosing to daydream — is a skill that can be developed and practiced.

So be sure to waste a good portion of each week. Employers, encourage zone-outs. Daydreaming is the path to genius. The cultivation of a healthy daydreaming habit will make us better authors of this science fictional future we are building.

Contact me if you want to discuss the merits and methods of wasting time.

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