Daydreaming May Be the Key to Innovation at Work

New research shows that daydreaming at work can drive creative innovations.

Posted Aug 26, 2020

Is daydreaming at work a way of wasting time or an important tool to boost creativity? New research suggests the answer is both, depending on the characteristics of the person doing the daydreaming. When a daydreamer cares about the work they do, the activity can boost innovation and creative problem-solving.

Nicole Lazzaro designed the first-ever game for iPhone. She’s also a passionate believer in daydreaming. “I use daydreams to solve complex challenges,” she told me. Beyond her work as a game developer, she deliberately daydreams to manage data.

Laurenz Kleinheider/Unsplash
Daydreaming can help us solve complex problems and find creative innovations at work.
Source: Laurenz Kleinheider/Unsplash

“Running my business I often take large data sets and ask my subconscious to consolidate them into a few words or an image that solves the problem,” Lazzaro explains. “I find that I have to write in all caps so I can read what I wrote or draw [once] I'm fully awake.”

The technique helped her make a breakthrough she takes pride in: the Four Keys to Fun Model. She took a large data set of player facial emotion data and set out to daydream. “I close my eyes and work the problem out in my mind,” she says. “I created the model that maps out how player actions in games create the emotions players feel.”

Daydreaming prompts breakthroughs

The authors of a study on daydreaming in the workplace agree with her. The paper, published in the Academy Of Management Journal, depicts daydreaming as "a critical mechanism accounting for the connection between the type of work people do and the level of creativity they exhibit on the job.”

Creativity is at a premium in the modern workplace, where we constantly search for the latest innovation. In this setting, daydreaming can be a tremendous asset. “Daydreaming can have significant upsides for one’s tendency to crack difficult challenges in new ways,” said Markus Baer in a press release. His co-authors are Erik Dane, associate professor of organizational behavior at Olin, and Hector P. Madrid of Pontificia Universidad.

The three studied hundreds of employees in a variety of industries, including banking, commerce, and tech. They found that tricky problems made people far more likely to daydream. The daydreams consistently gave a boost to the dreamers' creativity, provided they met one key criterion.

The key to workplace daydreaming was how invested the daydreamer was in their work. “[When] people deeply care about the work they do, what attracted them to the profession in the first place,” Baer said, their daydreams pay off. The more a worker enjoyed and was fulfilled by their work, the more likely they were to daydream creatively about their job’s tasks.

In some cases, daydreaming reduces productivity

But if the workers lacked a deep sense of professional identification with their work, daydreams quickly became unproductive. In these individuals, daydreams were the silly time-wasters my middle school teachers forbade. “Daydreaming without this focus has significant downsides, which show up most directly in one’s overall performance ratings,” said Baer.

Still, the upside of daydreaming in workers who were invested in their work was real. The study authors concluded that businesses interested in innovation should dismantle the stigma around daydreaming.

Dina Kaplan, founder, and CEO of The Path, would agree. She had wanted to start a meditation company but had no idea of what that company would actually do. One evening, she was daydreaming while floating on her back in a swimming pool.

“I was watching clouds above me turn from white to grey as the sun set. Suddenly the idea came to me. I kicked at the water and stood in the pool. And I told the friend I was with: 'I figured it out. I know how to launch The Path. I'm going to book a flight back to NY tomorrow and start the company,'" Kaplan recalls.

These days we may not be able to jump on a plane when we have a great idea, but we can daydream wherever we are.

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An earlier version of this article was published on Forbes.com.