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 percent of the time it takes you to read this post. Some of us spend 30 to 40 percent of our time daydreaming.
Do you remember what the previous paragraph was about? It's OK, I'm not offended. Chances are that your mind will wander for up to eight minutes for every hour that you spend reading this book. About 13 percent of the time that people spend reading is spent not reading, but daydreaming or mind-wandering. But reading, by comparison to other things we do, isn't so badly affected by daydreaming. Some estimates put the average amount of time spent daydreaming at 30 to 40 percent.
So why do we do it? It may be a form of problem-solving:
…the content of people's daydreams reflected the kinds of coping strategies that they typically employed to solve problems. This suggests that the wandering mind might actually be off searching for ways to cope with the stresses of everyday life. You may not know exactly how to deal with your man troubles, but your wandering mind is working on it…One of the most interesting things about this slothful pastime is that it involves the same brain regions that are active when people are solving insight puzzles.
In fact, people whose minds wander a lot are more creative and better problem solvers.
Mind-wandering allows one part of the brain to focus on the task at hand, and another part of the brain to keep a higher goal in mind. Christoff (2009) at the University of California, Santa Barbara has evidence that people whose minds wander a lot are more creative and better problem solvers. Their brains have them working on the task at hand but simultaneously processing other information and making connections.
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
People spend 46.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they're doing, and this mind-wandering typically makes them unhappy. So says a study that used an iPhone Web app to gather 250,000 data points on subjects' thoughts, feelings, and actions as they went about their lives.
"Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people's happiness," Killingsworth says. "In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged."
And yes, it's a cause, not an effect:
Time-lag analyses conducted by the researchers suggested that their subjects' mind-wandering was generally the cause, not the consequence, of their unhappiness.
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.
A 2008 study by the University of Toronto's Chen-Bo Zhong and his colleagues found that doing something habitual, such as going for a walk, washing the dishes, or taking a nap, enables you to unconsciously access peripheral information your brain may not readily consider during an intense state of Focus.
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.
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