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Daydreaming on the Job? Why Giving People Space to Sit and Ponder Pays Off



Daydreaming on the Job? Why Giving People Space to Sit and Ponder Pays Off

I have been a mighty daydreamer for a very long time. Daydreams are a magnetic pull for me. What begins as a glance at a small object blurs into the depths of my mind until I pull myself out of my reverie and go back to the matter at hand. I always feel refreshed when I return back to “normal.” The reverie serves as a type of marinating time for my new ideas.

As a child, I was chided by my teachers. Now I can point to thought leaders on the neuroscience of creativity to defend my propensity to daydream. Research shows that innovation happens not during our intentional, laser-focused modes but when we are daydreaming.

Daydreaming leads to wonder. Pay attention to how many times you, your colleagues, and your teammates begin a sentence with, “I wonder if…” or “I wonder what might happen when…” Observe what follows those two words, “I wonder…” What we begin to wonder about leads us to the precipice of discovery. Therein lies the magic. It is more concerning if you and those around you are not starting their sentences with “I wonder…” That admittance of ignorance and curiosity is critical to innovation.

Wonder, the component of creativity that requires pausing and asking big, audacious “What if…?” questions, requires a space of doing nothing. With our fast-paced, just-in-time expectations, this may be a radical proposition for many organizations and individuals. We don’t schedule enough time to wonder in our typical workday because we’re rushing from one meeting to the next. When faced with uncertainty, we tend to scramble and worry, when we should be giving ourselves real time to sit and think it through.

I give myself 5-minute timed breaks to daydream out a window each day. It truly helps me return to the task at hand with an energized and refreshed focus. Our brains need the space and time for neural synapses to shift away from deep, focused work so that new ideas emerge. Along with daydreaming, play is one of the best ways to spark wonder. When we play, we engage in lateral thinking, experimentation, problem-solving, and alternative reality envisioning. What better way to prime our minds for any intensive strategy work that awaits us?

To effectively activate creativity, wonder needs a partner and counterpoint. Therefore, be sure to also design time into your day for rigor. Rigor is a deep skill, time on a task, and honing discipline. Some workplaces disguise meetings, procedures, and rulebooks as rigor. But rigor demands a personal investment. Rigor is that essential feature of creativity that anchors the wonder; puts guardrails up; and requires us to do the sweaty, muscle-bound work with whatever muse we choose. Rigor is often solitary and can feel monotonous, but it is crucial if we are ever to go about the work of creativity in a sustained way. Rigor is the grit and resilience that creativity requires for the long haul. Rigor ensures that we actually complete the leap we started.

Toggling between wonder and rigor is what makes innovation possible. Our brains are always trying to work more efficiently by balancing regions and conserving energy. When doing hard and tedious tasks (filing taxes would be an example for me!) our brains sometimes experience interference. There is too much going on in the default region. A neuroscientist who studies creativity and founder of PlatoScience, Balder Onarheim, explains: “We tend to center our cognitive capacity in the frontal region—for memory tasks. When we do that, we limit the activity in the default network regions, where we have unconscious and subconscious processing. When you take a break to shower, run or cook a meal, you release tension in the front and get more activity in the default network, in the back of your brain.”

Here are a few examples of ways to cultivate wonder and rigor:

Use downtime to get better at something you’ve been faking being good at.

Watching a YouTube tutorial is one way to get a fine-tuned lesson. Or maybe dig into your existing work with a fresh outlook. You may decide to do a complete and thorough re-work of your business model and identify new strategic partners. Get into a zone and deliberate in minutiae instead of just glossing over the details.

Structure your daydreaming with “quietstorming.”

This can be done solo or in a small group. Choose a topic, and frame it as a “How might I…?” question. Set a timer for 2 minutes and quietly ideate on the question—no talking, just silence, and writing down ALL of the ideas that emerge. You are going for quantity over quality. When time is up, sort and sift your ideas into categories. If in a team, share and compare with 1-2 people.

Hold quietstorming sessions to come up with innovative solutions.

Choose a topic. Set a timer for 90 seconds for each of the following prompts, in succession.

  • List as many WHY questions as possible.
  • Then build on those WHY questions and list as many WHAT IF questions as possible.
  • Finally, build on the WHAT IF questions and list as many HOW questions as possible.
  • Remember that asking questions is a way of thinking. The HOW questions you have generated become calls to action.

Set aside one hour a week for a Rigor Sprint, a deep-dive focus on a particular question.

The question could be around a client’s problem or related to an internal bottleneck at the office that needs a workaround. Allow people to go off to their own sequestered areas to work quietly and then report back.

Commit the time and space for daydreaming, wonder, and rigor. The more regularly you do, the easier they will become.

Natalie Nixon, PhD is a creativity strategist, global keynote speaker, and the president of Figure 8 Thinking, LLC. She helps leaders apply creativity and foresight to achieve transformative business results and amplify value. Natalie is the author of The Creativity Leap: Unleash Curiosity, Improvisation, and Intuition at Work (Berrett-Koehler; June 2020), a regular contributor to INC., and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Learn more at and follow her @natwnixon.