Picture this scenario. You’ve been called into the morning meeting and it soon begins to drag. You’ve run out of space to doodle and your mind begins to wander — it’s been a while since you last had a holiday, and you’re long overdue for a week on the beach.
You can almost feel the sun on your skin and the cocktail in your hand. The sound of the sea seems so real — and then you snap back to reality: work.
We’re told to concentrate from a young age and we’ve all likely been reprimanded at some point by a teacher for tuning out of a lesson. It’s no different in the workplace, where allowing our minds to wander can get us into hot water.
Despite this, we spend an average of 780 hours a year daydreaming — the equivalent of an entire month. In a new study published this year, more than 80% of people surveyed by Travel Republic admitted that they allowed their minds to drift off up to three times a day.
Granted, we can’t spend the whole day staring off into the middle distance without getting into trouble. But research suggests daydreaming isn’t all bad, and that it might even be beneficial to our work.
A brain boost
A 2017 study by the Georgia Institute of Technology found that occasional daydreams might be linked to intellect and creativity. Researchers measured the brain patterns of more than 100 people and asked them to fill in a questionnaire about how much their mind wandered in daily life.
Those who reported more frequent daydreaming scored higher on intellectual and creative ability. These daydreamers also had more efficient brain systems measured in the MRI machine.
“People tend to think of mind wandering as something that is bad. You try to pay attention and you can’t,” Georgia Tech professor Eric Schumacher said in a statement. “Our data are consistent with the idea that this isn’t always true. Some people have more efficient brains.”
Allowing your mind to unfocus before turning back to the task in hand can leave you feeling rejuvenated and improve your ability to think, the study found.
“Our findings remind me of the absent-minded professor — someone who’s brilliant, but off in his or her own world, sometimes oblivious to their own surroundings,” Schumacher, a co-author of the study, said.
“Or school children who are too intellectually advanced for their classes. While it may take five minutes for their friends to learn something new, they figure it out in a minute, then check out and start daydreaming.”
If your mind wanders while you’re performing a boring task, you may actually be boosting your creative potential. Research by the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that mindless tasks that allow our thoughts to roam can be good for innovation.
Daydreaming might also be a sign of a good memory. A 2012 study found that a “wandering mind” correlated with higher degrees of working memory — the ability to retain information in the face of distraction. The more working memory we have, the more likely we can daydream without forgetting what we’re doing.
Wandering minds solve problems
Research has also related daydreaming to wellbeing. A 2015 study by the University of Sheffield linked it to feeling socially connected, particularly if we’re thinking about loved ones.
And while daydreaming is often thought of as a waste of time, this isn’t necessarily the case. Researchers at the University of British Columbia found that our brains are much more active when our minds wander than we previously thought — particularly brain areas associated with complex problem-solving.
Daydreaming is, in fact, an important cognitive state in which we unconsciously sort out problems in our lives, the UCB study revealed.
“Mind wandering is typically associated with negative things like laziness or inattentiveness,” according to UCB professor Kalina Christoff, who was the lead author on the study.
“But this study shows our brains are very active when we daydream — much more active than when we focus on routine tasks,” she said in a statement.
There are some drawbacks, though. When you daydream, you may not be achieving your immediate goal — say, the paperwork sitting on the desk in front of you.
“But your mind may be taking that time to address more important questions in your life, such as advancing your career or personal relationships,” Christoff said.
Whether or not daydreaming has a positive impact also depends on the thoughts going through your mind. In 2010, Harvard University researchers used an app to monitor the thoughts, feelings, and activity of 2,250 adults in the US. They found daydreaming about positive topics didn’t add anything to participants’ happiness levels — but people who had thoughts about negative topics became more unhappy.
Zoning out for long periods at work is rarely going to be appreciated by your boss, but daydreaming from time to time can be useful. Daydreaming can help solve problems, boost creativity, and allow some space to think, all of which can help us get ahead at work in the long run.