There’s a simple activity that spurs creativity, boosts problem-solving abilities and calms anxieties. This activity might sound like it’s really something, but actually it’s really…nothing. Just a few minutes spent doing nothing could turn out to be among the most productive parts of your day.
Thanks in large part to smartphones, even the briefest breaks in the day are now filled with checking messages, surfing the Internet, listening to podcasts and playing games. As a result, standing around doing nothing seems wasteful, and many people fear it makes them appear unimportant.
But researchers are discovering that banishing boredom and inactivity does not actually make life better. Studies have shown that brief stretches of mindless activity tend to boost people’s creativity and problem-solving abilities. Example: A study published in Creativity Research Journal found that participants did better on the creative task of coming up with as many uses as possible for a pair of plastic cups if they first had engaged in an activity that let their minds wander—the boring task of reading mindlessly from a phone book.
Why does doing nothing improve creativity and problem-solving skills? Because your brain isn’t actually doing nothing when you do nothing—it’s daydreaming. And though daydreaming carries negative associations, it’s actually time well spent.
When researchers conducted MRI scans on the brains of people who were daydreaming, they found that multiple parts of their brains were highly active—including the “executive network,” which is associated with complex problem solving—according to a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
You likely have had the experience of waking from a deep sleep to discover that your dreaming brain has thought up a useful idea. This is the same concept behind daydreaming—but with less risk that you’ll forget the idea.
Harnessing the Power of Doing Nothing
The secret to getting something out of doing nothing is to allow your mind to wander without exercising any control over where it goes during this time.
Some people can achieve this dreamy let-your-mind-wander state almost anywhere—if you often catch yourself staring into space in noisy, busy places such as coffee shops or on train platforms, you probably don’t need to take any special steps to daydream. You just need to put away your phone or your book and let it happen. Other people may have to actively seek out conditions that are conducive to purposeful daydreaming.
Even people who don’t daydream can get in on the action if they try daydreaming while…
Standing in line. Supermarket and airport lines once were prime daydreaming time before the advent of smartphones with all their distractions. Boring queues can be that again. Direct your eyes up toward a spot high on a wall or in a distant corner of the ceiling to reduce the odds that you’ll make eye contact with other people or spot other things that grab your attention. Daydreaming in lines can be an effective anxiety-control strategy, too—when you feel frustration about the length of a line, tell yourself to instead be thankful for the opportunity to daydream. It feels better to know that the downtime actually is a good use of your time.
Enjoying quiet time during drives. Turn off your car’s radio, and just let your mind wander during your commute or other drives. Make sure you’re still paying attention to the road, of course.
Sitting in a spot with a pleasant but not dramatic view. Gaze out a window at a tree…look into a fireplace with a fire burning…or focus on a pond in a park. Just watch the fire…the water…the wind blowing the leaves…or the clouds floating by.
Strolling with or without your dog. Going for a walk is a good way to get away from the potential distractions of home and the workplace. Walking amid trees or fields tends to be more conducive to daydreaming than walking through neighborhoods or cities because nature provides fewer distractions and irritating noises.
Swimming. Swimming isn’t doing nothing—it’s great exercise. But some people find that it’s an ideal opportunity for musing on things. The water cuts down on outside distractions, and the rhythm of the strokes can be hypnotic.
Engaging in an activity that occupies your hands but barely engages your mind. Knit…doodle…bounce a ball against a wall…or color in coloring books. These sorts of activities can encourage people who find it frustrating and unpleasant to be unoccupied. The activity occupies the hands and mind enough to stave off that frustration, at least for a while, but requires such a minimal amount of brainpower that it doesn’t prevent you from getting lost in thought.
Letting your mind wander for even just a few minutes can be useful, if that’s all the time you have. But it’s best if you can try to find at least a few times each week for extended bouts of daydreaming—target 30 minutes, if you can manage that without frustration setting in. Once frustration starts, productive daydreaming becomes unlikely.
Three Do-Nothing No-Nos
Yes, it is possible to go wrong when your goal is to do nothing more than daydream…
Meditation and yoga are not conducive to daydreaming. When people meditate or do yoga, they typically try to focus their attention on a single concept or action. This does have benefits, but it’s very different from letting the mind wander.
Killing time by browsing the Internet or watching mindless TV is not the right sort of doing nothing. These activities are doing nothing in the sense that you’re accomplishing nothing—but staring at a phone, computer or TV screen tends to inhibit your thoughts from wandering freely.
Focused problem-solving is not daydreaming. If you consciously steer your mind to seek a solution to a specific problem, you will undercut the creative power of daydreaming. Instead, let your thoughts drift wherever they take you. Trust that your mind is aware of the big problem you face and is working on that problem even when you’re not directing it to do so.