How many times do you catch your mind wandering when you’re plodding through your day’s activities? As you slip into reverie, for example, do you see yourself relaxing at your favorite beach resort? How about imagining the big event you’re attending next weekend? Are you starting to think about who you’re going to see there, and what you’ll wear? After a few seconds, you snap back to attention and focus your mind back on what you’re supposed to be doing. Perhaps you were in the middle of a meeting and realize that everyone is waiting for your answer to a question posed to the group. It’s also possible that you were trying to finish a repetitive task on your desktop, and while clicking through an endless number of cut and paste operations, you started to time travel back to the weekend before. Maybe you've just gone to the gym for an hour and spent most of the time thinking about a problem in your relationship.
The effects of daydreaming or mind-wandering are generally thought of as negative. When attention is diverted, you’re more likely to make a mistake, and while driving, you certainly do need to focus all of your senses on what’s going on around you. Apart from all the other potential hazards that can come from distracted driving due to cell phones, GPS, and even the car radio, drifting off into oblivion should certainly rank high on that list of dangers. At work, though, or while involved in your household routines, is it really all that bad to retreat into your thoughts, if only for a moment?
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Georgia Institute of Technology’s Kelsey Merlo and colleagues (2019) decided to take a new approach to studying the age-old question of why people daydream, and what effects daydreaming can have on people’s productivity. The authors note that despite how common it is to think about something other than what you’re doing (they claim that perhaps as many as half of all waking moments), the work and organizational psychology literature virtually ignores the phenomenon altogether. Most studies of daydreaming have a cognitive focus or pin the activity down to the brain’s “default working network,” which produces internally-generated activity. As in that example from the gym, your mind dissociates relatively easily when you're involved in automatic activities. This is when the default working network has allows you to split your consciousness.
Other terms refer to daydreaming in a more negative light, noting its repetitive nature in the form of rumination or worry. From the standpoint of the Georgia Tech researchers, mind-wandering or daydreaming can be defined as being stimulus-independent, in that the content of the thoughts are not a reflection of sensory input or related to the task being performed at the moment. Such thoughts can be fanciful, such as imagining yourself winning the lottery, or pragmatic, as in planning what to make for dinner. They can be related to work, as when you try to plan out your schedule for the day, and they can be triggered by stimuli such as the phone ringing, which reminds you that you have an important call coming up later in the day.
The comprehensive study conducted by Merlo and her associates took a person-centered approach in which participants provided, in their own words, the causes of their daydreaming, the content of their daydreams, and the results they felt followed from the mind-wandering interlude. The authors focused, as they stated, “on the lived-through experience of a mind wandering episode as that episode is experienced subjectively, by the worker him/herself” (p. 3). They also wanted to allow participants to experience mind-wandering in real situations rather than in the artificial conditions of a lab. They wanted to see, as they proposed, “the dynamic nature of mind wandering as part of work experience” (p. 4). This approach allowed them the flexibility to study daydreaming in its natural environment while also maintaining scientific rigor. According to “grounded theory,” it’s just as valid to analyze open-ended responses (if done in a systematic manner) as it is to apply the methods of survey research and quantitative analysis.
Participants in the Georgia Tech study, then, were all working adults obtained from two university sites, whose average age was 40 years old. They represented a diverse set of occupations and half were white/Caucasian with the remainder identifying as African American (45%) or Asian (5%). In the open-ended interview the participants completed, the less technical term “daydreaming” was used rather than mind-wandering.
The analyses, then, rather than representing statistical tests, reflected the broad themes that emerged across interviews, divided into the 3 areas regarding the onset, ending, and outcome of daydreams. Looking first at onset, or triggers, these ranged from internal states (sadness, fatigue, or boredom), direct prompts (looking at something or someone), an internal progression (thinking about one thing that then leads to another), being in a meeting, and just taking a natural break (such as being in between projects). You can enter a daydream at work, then, either because you're inwardly triggered to do so by a mental state, externally stimulated by something that happens to you, or by being in a work situation that naturally fosters daydreaming.
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People snapped out of their mind wandering, the authors reported, for similar reasons. They can be faced with external cues, such as the “ping” of an email landing in their inbox, internal cues, or becoming aware that they were daydreaming, or by the daydream reaching its natural conclusion and there was nothing left to daydream about. You might wake from your daydream, then, because someone is standing in front of you and demanding your attention, or because you realize it’s time to get back to what you were doing.
Most interesting from the standpoint of daydreaming’s effect on your mental health and productivity were the responses that participants provided about the perceived outcome of a mind-wandering episode. They described some negative impacts, such as feeling guilty about having drifted off from their work tasks or continuing to experience a negative mood state from the daydream if it involved worrying or reliving a sad event. However, many of the participants believed that daydreaming had benefited their emotions and their work performance. One software consultant noted that “Because they are so short and I find them to be pleasant, they never hurt me.” Some noted that they worked harder after the daydream ended to catch up any lost time or effort. A financial administrator stated making fewer mistakes after a daydream break “because I was getting bored with the task.”
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The authors were struck not only by these positive outcomes, but also by the fact that mind-wandering seemed to be a process that the participants stated they could control. They could decide to avoid an aversive work environment with a brief mental wander somewhere else, and when they wanted to end the daydream, they could readily do so. As a result, the authors concluded, “mind wandering may be able to be used strategically to enhance work experience” (p. 12). The micro-break the daydream provides can help to combat fatigue and strain during the day because “it allows individuals to cognitively and affectively disengage from their work demands” (p. 13). You don’t need to wait until the weekend or your next vacation, the findings suggest, to get the mental health benefits of a break. Although mind-wandering seems “mindless,” at another level, using your daydreams to enhance your well-being can be an exceptionally mindfulness-boosting experience.
To sum up, the Merlo et al. findings suggest that the occasional daydream, especially the one that allows you to unfocus and then refocus, can be one of the best ways to become better at what you’re doing. The associated feelings of being refreshed and ready to tackle your next task can become just the antidote you need to lower stress and boost your feelings of day-to-day fulfillment.