Wandering minds are associated with creativity. Popular wisdom tells you to live in the moment.
So is it better to be unfocused or focused?
Let’s look at the research.
The Upside of Mind Wandering
You spend up to 8 minutes of every hour daydreaming. Your mind will probably wander for 13% of the time it takes you to read this post. Some of us spend 30-40% of our time daydreaming.
So why do we do it? It may be a form of problem-solving:
In fact, people whose minds wander a lot are more creative and better problem solvers.
In Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, Steven Johnson makes it pretty clear that creativity is messy.
Ideas need to be sloshing around or crashing in to one another to produce breakthroughs:
- Having multiple hobbies allows your brain to subconsciously compare and contrast problems and solutions, forming new connections at the margins of each.
- Similarly, reading multiple books at the same time vs serially lets your brain juxtapose new ideas and develop new connections.
- ADD and bipolar disorder are both associated with greater creativity. When you’re drunk or exhausted your brain is poised for breakthroughs.
Hold on though — this doesn’t mean daydreaming is all good.
The Downside of Mind Wandering
And yes, it’s a cause, not an effect:
And recent research shows a wandering mind may be associated with poor health, perhaps due to that unhappiness and stress.
So What’s The Deal?
A wandering mind takes more in: good and bad. This leads to new ideas. But it can take you up — and it can take you down.
Focus doesn’t allow the noise in. But the noise is what allows creativity to spark.
What you want to do is spend most of your time focused but have rituals that allow your mind to wander on cue.
You have coffee in the morning and get ready to go. You unwind at night to get ready for bed.
You already have rituals that put you into a zone, you just may not realize it. What you want to do is use them deliberately.
This is the secret the pros know. Michael Jordan was able to do it during games.
And research shows these rituals are powerful for creativity too.
How do you get focused? How do you unwind?
Start using these more deliberately and you can make yourself happier as well as more creative when you need to be.
This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.
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