Daydreaming is a great way to spur creativity and come up with new ideas; it can help reenergize stalled projects at work and boost morale. But daydreaming can be bad too, with lack of focus causing downtime, lost productivity, errors, and accidents.
If your daydreaming at the office is getting out of hand, there are steps you can take to redirect and maintain your attention to the matter at hand.
Daydreams can be really useful
When you daydream, you’re basically unlocking your subconscious and giving your creative self free rein. That includes sheer creativity, spinning ideas out of imagination, as well as delving into memories and contemplating your future.
It allows space for reflection too, which you can bring into present and future plans. In other words, daydreaming can help you solve problems. You can get into this frame of mind quite deliberately, by taking a break from the problem you’re working on and moving to something that is both undemanding and unrelated.
A study co-authored by Georgia Institute of Technology psychology professor Eric Schumacher found “significant positive correlations between trait mind wandering and fluid intelligence.” In other words, smart people daydream. Their brains have the capacity to wander while doing other tasks, especially when those tasks aren’t very demanding.
Indeed, Brynn L. Winegard, Ph.D., actually recommends daydreaming as a way to learn. In her video, she says when you’re daydreaming, your brain performs the same function as it does when you’re sleeping: It rewires itself and assimilates experiences into knowledge networks. Daydreaming allows you to unfocus so you can focus for more clarity and so that you can ultimately be more productive.
So, what’s wrong with daydreaming again?
Well, it can be dangerous.
If your mind wanders when you’re behind the wheel, as researchers say it does 70 percent of the time, daydreaming can injure or kill you and others. It’s even worse than driving and texting. In fact, when Erie Insurance analyzed National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics, they found that “61 percent of distracted drivers were daydreaming at the time of a fatal crash, compared with 14 percent of drivers who were distracted by cell phone use.”
It can also have a negative effect on your business or your career. It’s not just decreased productivity that happens while you're lost in space, either. You can lose customers, clients, and money. For example, actively listening is crucial to sales, writes consultant Ken Kupchik. If you’re daydreaming when a customer is talking to you, you’re probably missing details necessary to close the transaction.
And if you daydream uncontrollably and excessively, which is known as maladaptive daydreaming, you may actually have an underlying mental health problem, which could be anything from depression and anxiety to obsessive-compulsive or attention deficit hyperactivity disorders.
How to stop daydreaming at work if it's getting in the way
To stop zoning out when it’s inappropriate, make sure you’re getting enough personal daydream time. That might mean engaging in physical exercise that doesn’t need a lot of concentration, like walking or biking (in this case, think stationary biking rather than street biking). You can also indulge your daydreaming self by picking up a long-discarded hobby or taking an art class.
If you tend to lose focus in meetings, try sitting near the main speaker or your team leader. Asking questions and taking notes are other proactive ways to stay engaged in discussions. Physically changing your workplace can help too: If you gaze out the window from your desk in your office, try rearranging the furniture into a different configuration.
And work that muscle, says Elie Venezky, co-author of Hack Your Brain. “Focus is a muscle, and you can build it,” he explains. “Too many people labor under the idea that they’re just not focused, and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Once you drop this mistaken belief, you can take a much more realistic approach to building focus.”
One way to build that focus muscle is to add distractions, even though that sounds like bad advice. Still, cognitive psychologist Nilli Lavie has long been an advocate of adding distractions in order to increase focus.
It goes like this: If you increase non-essential visual information on a paper, like colors or designs, your brain has to make sense of those in addition to the relevant text. It then has less capacity to wander. The same approach can be used with sound: If your brain is processing both background music and speech, its capacity to daydream is decreased.
Of course, distractions that demand the same or more bandwidth from you as the work you’re trying to do will defeat the purpose. You may need to experiment with which “task-irrelevant stimuli” works best for you.