Cognitive SciencePeer-Reviewed Research

Daydream Believer

Daydream Believer
  • Mind wandering – the state of mental disconnection from your task – can take up as much as half the typical workday.
  • While mind wandering can be dangerous for certain tasks, it can be helpful overall in certain types of jobs.
  • Though mind wandering can be good for work, anxiety can derail productivity.

The mind is prone to wander. Commonly known as daydreaming – the state of mental disconnection from the task at hand – it can take up as much as half of the typical workday. 

Some research suggests this may be a good thing. Wandering minds help us adapt to problems, the reasoning goes, because by briefly changing our focus, we can solve problems more creatively. 

That’s not to say daydreaming is always benign. We prefer that the E.R. surgeon focus on the operation. The boxer is best off concentrating on slipping a punch. In general, when it comes to one-time tasks, daydreaming is suboptimal.

Rice Business professor Erik Dane has tried to bridge these two different views of mind wandering at work. In a recent paper, Dane suggests that while daydreaming can undermine productivity, it is also a critical problem-solving tool. 

In an extensive literature review, Dane explored a series of questions about how mind wandering works. Based on current research, he concluded that a wandering mind can be positive if where it wanders is work related. Such a wandering mind helps employees conceive of possibilities not previously considered. 

There’s a vast difference between daydreaming and plain distraction, Dane notes. Turning your attention from composing a strategy memo to answering an annoying text from the cable company is not mind- wandering – it’s digression (or multitasking). And when you look up from cooking dinner to see your neighbor hacking down your bamboo, that’s not mind wandering – it’s annoyance.

Mind wandering implies instead that your thoughts have drifted from the present altogether. From a neuroscience perspective, it is a journey into the brain’s “default network” – a mode of functioning that occurs when the mind is not consumed with demands in one’s surroundings. When you’re driving home and forget to stop at the grocery store because you’re envisioning your imminent vacation to Barcelona, that’s mind wandering. 

According to Dane, mind wandering can be good for businesses – if it revolves around work issues. Wandering on your downtime may steal a few moments from your personal life, but it’s a powerful way to take advantage of relaxation to solve professional problems. 

There are other ways mind wandering can be positive. Think for a moment about James Thurber’s classic character Walter Mitty, whose mind is constantly taking flights of fancy. He’s not as hapless as he might seem. Outside the work context, Dane writes, mind wandering allows us to conceive of possibilities, scenarios and images disconnected from time and, in some cases, basic feasibility. But it’s the quintessential first step of innovation. 

Another type of mind wandering involves movement through time. Past, present and future mingle. As a manager mulls strategies for handling a problem employee, her thoughts may slide to a time when she too was considered a problem at work. The memories, context and details swirling through her mind may redirect her toward a less-obvious solution to the conundrum. 

But mind wandering is not all positive. It can easily devolve into thoughts and feelings that inhibit performance. The stress from negative daydreams may even discourage a worker from focusing on a task – or doing it at all.  

To facilitate job performance, Dane writes, it’s important to keep in mind your work goals. It’s also essential to stay positive – even as you let your thoughts drift. In other words, focus on goals, their associated tasks and sub-goals, and steer clear of distracting worries, which can keep you from finding solutions. 

The more you succumb to anxiety, Dane warns, the more the associated cognitive effects will undermine your performance. It’s a skill, in other words: relax enough to be creative, yet keep the negative thoughts in check. Like getting comfortable with new software or maximizing production on an assembly line, productive mind wandering is learnable, Dane promises. And unlike a computer or a car factory, the tools within our brains only grow more productive with use. 

Erik Dane is an associate professor of management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

To learn more, please see: Dane, E. (2018). Where is my mind? Theorizing mind wandering and its performance-related consequences in organizations. Academy of Management Review, 43(2), 179-197.