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The Art of Deliberate Daydreaming

Train your mind to generate fresh and innovative ideas.

Deliberate daydreaming is a necessary art for anyone in the business of generating fresh ideas and then living them or making a living from them.

Deliberate daydreaming is that capacity to be in reverie with your own imagination, ideas, and visions.

On a humble daily level, deliberate daydreaming is where we can learn to capture the stray thought that turns out to be the goldfish of an insight and solution.

It’s in this meadow of daydreams that our minds can roam beyond the conventional fences of our company or the field we work within. It’s where our minds can break brand. It’s where our minds can question, “Why?” and “Why not?” and “What if?” It’s where our imaginations can fathom new possibilities. It’s where our capacity for vision can foresee new futures for ourselves and the world-at-large.

It’s an art and talent that can retrain your wandering off-task attention on ideas instead of on personal rumination and story-making.

The Daydreaming Paradox & the Stigma

In The Science of the Daydreaming Paradox for Innovation, I mentioned this paradox in the human brain regarding daydreaming:

But there's something else we have to acknowledge: Daydreaming is still stigmatized. Some people still associate daydreaming with laziness. Google “dangers of laziness” and you’ll see the moral injunctions we're up against when we champion daydreaming or a healthy dose of indolence. Daydreaming at its extreme also can become potentially dangerous fantasy-making.

Daydreaming also has been stigmatized within the very field that studies the human mind: psychology, as psychologists Scott Barry Kaufman and the daydreaming pioneer Jerome L. Singer describe. (Kaufman studied under Singer, has been studying daydreaming for over a decade, and calls himself a "daydreaming researcher.")

Daydreaming also is frowned upon and misunderstood within many business and corporate settings. 80 percent of people surveyed around the globe by Adobe said they felt pressured to be productive not creative at work — even though approximately that same number felt creativity to be important to them.

Maybe it's for good reason. An acquaintance recently took a month-long trip to Europe. He wanted to do it now before he and his wife started growing a family. He’s anything but lazy. A stellar reputation in his field. Numerous projects for the corporation he works for at hand. A brilliant brain for ideation and team execution. He’s wanting to look ahead to what’s next within the next ten years. Being away gave him fresh perspective. He barely wrote. Instead, he ruminated, revered, and reveled.

He daydreamed. He returned with a fresh take on what’s important to him — and what's not. He questioned previous assumptions about where he adds value and in what field he wants to show up in in his future. He let go of a lot of extraneous responsibilities.

To an inflexible CEO or manager, that kind of daydreaming might seem dangerous That deep questioning can disrupt the status quo, which can make daydreaming a threat to people invested in hyper-controlling other people’s behaviors and controlling outcome — both attributes, by the way, that do not correlate with leadership that leads to innovation or optimal productivity. Leaders driven by efficiency might not want to have too many people on the workforce questioning the status quo if the status quo is profitable.

Deliberate daydreaming is an art of tracking wonder in which you retrain yourself to guide your daydreaming on ideas that interest your curiosity so your attention doesn’t descend into mulling and worrying and personal story-making and pure escapism (all qualities of mind, incidentally, that correlate consistently with poor creative insight and execution).

If you work within a company, deliberate daydreaming makes you both dangerous and indispensable. If you want to have influence in your field and be known for your own ideas, deliberate daydreaming gives you secret talents to take charge of your own ideas.

Daydreamers are the people who work in the invisible realm of ideas who ultimately influence and shape the cities being built, the communities being served, the apps being designed, the products being made. A study out of the University of California, Santa Barbara (2012) allowed a control group of people to let their minds wander while working on a creative thinking test. They performed 41 percent better than those groups who stayed focused.

Are we losing the capacity to daydream?

According to Michael Harris, author of Solitude: A Singular Life in A Crowded World, Penguin Random House 2017, yes. “An annoying truth about daydreaming is that it takes practice to get good at it. And we are sorely out of practice.” Our collective digital engagement and addiction might be stealing from our imaginations that capacity to roam without interruption.

What to do?

It might not seem practical to daydream deliberately at work. But it is a necessary practice and frame of mind you can learn. Here are four ideas to get you started.

Make space for reverie.

In French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s classic text The Poetics of Space, he describes the need for us to make spaces that induce reverie. That space doesn’t have to be a cabin in the woods or a full room of one’s own. It can be a nook. A cranny. An office corner.

The reverie space in the Tracking Wonder studio is a corner. It contains a corner book shelf. A small table beneath that sits beneath a window — big enough to hold a few books and a cup of tea or Bulletproof coffee or Four Sigmatics mushroom coffee.

I go there each morning as part of my morning rhythm. It’s there I make morning time (usually a half hour) to daydream, read a reflective book, sketch, or remap the day with work, play, and especially prioritized purpose. I go there on some mid-afternoons when my Lion’s frontal cortex wants a nap, and my brain’s emotional networks and default (i.e., daydream) networks are more active.

Just having that space within the studio space is a daily reminder of the need to daydream and be indolent. Deliberately.

Heed your brain walls, and do nothing well.

We all hit blocks. A block might come from brain fog or fatigue. Maybe it comes from trying to focus so much on a problem's solution that we cannot get perspective anymore. Maybe you and your team have circled around endlessly on trying to resolve a marketing issue, UX issue, or morale issue.

When you hit a wall, step away. Step away from your desk or team table. Pay attention to something with your hands and mind that are not “productive” (i.e., not aimed toward completing a task or goal). Don’t read research. Don’t distract yourself with Internet surfing or social media scrolling. Instead, read a paragraph or two of a novel or a poem that will stimulate other parts of your brain associated with reverie and novel idea generation. Sketch. Doodle. Engage your senses off-screen.

“Doing” something non-productive this way correlates with improved capacity for creative problem solving.

Clean your desk with awareness.

Writers and other creatives are notorious for saying they alphabetize their book shelves or clean their kitchen as a form of distraction or procrastination. But that kind of deliberately timed "non-productive” or non-work-related activity — coupled with a little awareness of awareness — could exercise your daydreaming muscles.

My video Daydream Project is my current active catalyst for regular deliberate daydreaming — even if in spurts (Daydream 024: From Buddha to City Moon).

Take a half day or full day off.

The 24/7 model of working doesn’t work for our collective growth as a species or a culture. CEOs like Basecamp’s Jason Fried advocates sanity in the office and clear boundaries for employees. My executive assistant gets one full Friday off a month, and she is to devote 10 percent of her weekly hours to pursuing her own growth project that benefits her and potentially the company.

Method founder and founder of the supplements company Olly, Eric Ryan also keeps clear boundaries between work and family — and prioritizes walking outdoors as part of the work culture and as part of the interview process.

If you're a team leader or executive, take stock of your attitudes toward deliberate daydreaming and to how you can encourage more "productive" daydreaming. If you work for an organization or company, introduce this subject at your next meeting.

If you work for yourself, be a good boss to your self. Keep clear boundaries. And take it a step further: Keep clear boundaries for your need to daydream. If you take a day or two off from work each week (remember weekends, anyone?), be sure you make it clear to yourself and to loved ones that you need just an hour or two or three alone to wonder and wander.

The idea of daydreaming at work might sound counter-intuitive. But it just might be the middle way between over-working and burning out on one hand and tuning out and being wholly unproductive on the other.

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