Next time you’ve got a complicated problem to solve, and concentrating on it just isn’t getting you anywhere, consider this: Maybe you’re thinking too hard.
“Walk over to a window and think about the people or cars going by for a few minutes, until you get bored,” suggests Josh Davis, research director at the New York NeuroLeadership Institute. “Let your mind wander.”
How will that help? “Always being ‘on’ blocks the brain processes that occur when we daydream,” says Davis. His book, Two Awesome Hours: Science-Based Strategies to Harness Your Best Time and Get Your Most Important Work Done, draws on new discoveries in brain science that pinpoint these three benefits of taking a few space laps:
Planning ahead. Researchers have found that, left alone to meander where they will, most people’s thoughts gravitate toward the future. “We often complain that we just don’t have time for the longer-term view,” Davis observes. “But what we may not realize is that it isn’t just an issue of setting aside time to focus on planning. When we’re always focused intently on work, or multitasking, or checking our email for the hundredth time, we block the mental processing that lets us envision where we want to go and how we might be able to get there.” Letting our minds relax and blank out releases those blocks.
Resisting temptation. One thing Davis found “quite surprising” about daydreaming, he says, is “how useful it is for helping people delay gratification.” Research from Germany shows that zoning out for a couple of minutes “gives your brain a chance to reframe a situation by taking a step back and seeing it in a different way, which in turn can help you hold out for something better in the future, rather than giving in to immediate desires.” Decisions that require willpower—defined as the ability to choose what you want most over what you want right now—seem to come far more readily if we don’t over-think them.
Incubating new ideas. According to research recently published in the journal Psychological Science, we’re more likely to come up with creative ideas by thinking about something else—or about nothing in particular—for a little while. Says Davis, “When we mentally drift to a different topic, our brains continue sorting out the tough challenge in the background.” Our brains also try out new connections between seemingly unrelated things while we’re woolgathering, Davis notes, so that spacing out for a few minutes “allows those patterns to get through” to our conscious minds.
Of course, the notion that daydreaming offers a pathway to innovation has been around for a long time, even if a constant flood of new demands on our attention has caused us to lose sight of it. Remember the story of Isaac Newton lazing around in the shade when a falling apple inspired him to consider gravity? Or Archimedes, the Greek who discovered the principal of displacement while lolling in a bathtub? Same idea, except that neither of them was distracted by a constantly pinging smartphone.