Hey Boss, Please Don’t Bother Me, I’m Daydreaming

By Fred Lee on 15 May 2009 (Updated 18 September 2009) 6 comments
Photo: Arte Ramgopal

The next time your boss scolds you for daydreaming on your job, give him a piece of your mind and let him know that you’re actually hard at work. In a recent study our of British Columbia, researchers discovered that when we daydream, contrary to popular perception, our minds are actually hard at work, particularly in areas associated with complex problem solving. So while we may seem distracted from the immediate task at hand, our minds may actually be giving greater thought to the bigger picture, like advancing our careers and by extension, furthering the interests of the company.

Experts seem to divide the activity of the brain into two broad categories, the default network and the executive network. When we engage in easy and routine activities, our default network kicks in. This is the same area of the brain that was long believed to be responsible for daydreaming. When we challenge our minds by trying to solve problems or think things through, it is our executive network that is called to task.

Using advanced MRI technology to scan brain activity, researchers found that it was in fact the executive network that was being engaged when subjects daydreamed. Until now, scientists assumed that the two networks worked exclusively of one another, so when one was operating, the other was dormant. The recent findings seem to contradict that long held belief.

In fact, it was found that the more a person let their mind wander, the more both networks kicked into gear, leading them to conclude that when we are beating ourselves up over a challenging conundrum, we might be better off taking our mind off the problem and just letting it wander.

Some of you might have firsthand experience with this. I know I have. When faced with a difficult problem that seems to have no solution, at some point all my repeated efforts have no effect, and I end up simply flogging a dead horse, as the expression goes. After having racked my brain for an extended period, sometimes taking a step back and clearing my head allows me to resolve the situation.

And if you’re a parent, you may wonder what exactly is going on in the mind of your children when they are being dreamy and thoughtful, and as a consequence, are ignoring your pleas for obeisance. Maybe the thing to do is to let them have their moment inside their head and let them work things out; unless, of course, you have to be somewhere and the clock is ticking, which always seems to be the case with kids.

Personally, I spend a an inordinate amount of my waking hours daydreaming, and apparently I’m not alone. Most of us spend as much as a third of hour waking hours in la-la land, and now it seems for good reason.

After all, while it goes without saying that certain task demand that we focus and pay serious attention to what we are doing (like say, for instance, operating a chainsaw or performing surgery) and a wandering mind could be tantamount to disaster, most of our working day is spent doing more mundane tasks. Maybe taking a little mini-vacation from the banality of it all isn’t such a bad idea. Besides, giving you a break and refreshing your mind, it might actually help clarify the big picture and help you do your job.

The question is, will your boss understand and appreciate your expertise in daydreaming, and if not, how can you utilize it as a selling point on your resume?

 

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Guest's picture

Oh boy, I can see this scenario:

Boss: Earth to CB!

Me: (Returning from daydream) Huh? Go away, I'm working hard.

Boss: Really? By staring off into space? How much am I paying you? You have 10 minutes to pack up your stuff and leave!

Me: I shouldn't take all of the advice I get literally. Especially in this job market.

Fred Lee's picture

In the end, I would never encourage people to daydream at their jobs thinking it would further their careers, but it's hard to argue with the fact that at some point there is some benefit to taking a break and giving your mind a breather, if only for sake of maintaining your sanity. And at least in the world of scientific research, walking away for a brief moment can do wonders for one's clarity, succeeding where mindless repetition failed.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and don't let your boss catch you drifting off!

Debbie Dragon's picture

Fred - I couldn't agree with you more.  I believed daydreams were beneficial to my writing career long before I ever read any scientific studies :)  You've got to give your mind permission to wander and breathe a bit from time to time.

Guest's picture
Slinky

Working in programming, I can say that it's pretty well accepted here that people who are staring off into space really ARE working. I find it's helpful to take in all the inputs or constraints on a problem, and then let my mind rest for a few, and then tackle the problem. It seems to help things 'sink in'.

Guest's picture

Some daydreaming is highly productive. Bosses should encourage that kind of daydreaming. Some daydreaming is a waste of time. Bosses should not be paying people to engage in that kind of daydreaming.

The trouble is that it takes effort to determine what sort of daydreaming the worker is engaging in. You need to get to know the person. You need to get to understand where their ideas come from.

A lot of our ideas of effective management come from a model in which the idea of management was to oversee people working on an assembly line. So a lot of bosses think that their job is to stand there with a stopwatch and make sure that no one is slacking off. We have a different kind of economy today and we need a different kind of management model to make it work.

There really are slackers. You can't just say "all daydreaming is good." But it is just as wrong to think that all daydreaming is bad. Productive Daydreaming brings in more profits than just about any other activity that an employee could be engaged in. ALL breakthrough ideas went through a daydreaming stage before they produced huge profits and huge growth.

Rob

Guest's picture
Guest

Everyone with an intact brain daydreams, and daydreams are an extension of our personality and thought process. As such, they'll be good and bad. But even daydreams that don't seem productive on the surface have a variety of benefits---they remind us of goals, personal and professional, both long term and short term; they provide stress relief; they aid in planning and analyzing. And that's just the beginning.
I'm glad this study came out--my book on the topic was just published: Daydreams at Work: Wake Up Your Creative Powers. If you're interested, you can read more about it at DaydreamsAtWork.com
Thanks.