When your mind wanders, it is far from idle.
5 min read
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“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.” ― John Lubbock
When I was studying computer science back in college, I was so absorbed in my academic pursuits that I never made time for socializing with friends outside of class. I would read copious amounts of books, and research for hours at a time without resting.
This pattern has repeated itself throughout my life. It’s easy for me to become so focused on “busy work” that I miss out on what truly mattered to me. On far too many weekends and moments of downtime, you’d find me looking at my phone instead of spending quality time with my wife and two young kids.
It took me a while, but eventually I came to realize that busyness does not, in and of itself, equal success.
Sure, when I was first building my company, JotForm, it seemed that way. Clocking in hours upon hours trying to develop this dream I had — what could be better than that?
Here’s the thing that’s taken me a few decades to learn: We need time and space to unfocus, too. Our brightest ideas will come to us during moments of rest.
Most of our greatest thinkers have long extolled the virtues of understanding ourselves. In Ancient Greece, the act of mind-wandering was viewed as a way to guide us back into a healthy state of being — for reconnecting with a part of ourselves we might otherwise be blind to.
Your mind is never idle, even when you let it wander
Many of us are caught up in finding ways to be more productive. We write endless to-do lists and download scheduling apps — always finding activities to give our attention to. But there’s something to be said for building in periods of the day in which we let our minds wander aimlessly.
Srini Pillay, a neuroscientist and acclaimed author, makes the case for why we need to build these pauses into our day. In a story for the Harvard Business Review, he writes:
“The problem is that excessive focus exhausts the focus circuits in your brain. It can drain your energy and make you lose self-control. This energy drain can also make you more impulsive and less helpful. As a result, decisions are poorly thought-out, and you become less collaborative.”
It’s no surprise that these intense periods of hyperfocus leave us feeling burned out and apathetic. In the tech world especially, we wear busyness as a badge-of-honor, avoiding boredom at all costs. But as Pillay explains: “In keeping with recent research, both focus and unfocus are vital. The brain operates optimally when it toggles between focus and unfocus, allowing you to develop resilience, enhance creativity, and make better decisions too.”
It’s true. Being an entrepreneur and successful leader means structuring our days in a way that allows for the immersion of deep work, and the gentle grounding offered by periods of daydreaming. Deliberately building both into your daily routine can help strengthen your agility and capacity to manage change more effectively.
Don’t just take my word for it. Modern-day research has found when your brain stays is allowed to wander, without thinking of anything in particular, patterns of activity known as the default mode network (DMN) continue to arise. This means that during periods of rest the DMN uses energy to activate old memories, and to creatively connect dots we might otherwise not be able to access.
Daydreaming is different from ruminating
“Sometimes, you have to look back in order to understand the things that lie ahead.” ― Yvonne Woon
Cognitive researchers believe that to maximize the benefits of letting our minds wander, we should lean on positive constructive daydreaming (PCD), which energizes the brain and is characterized by playful imagery and creative thought. For me, this means picturing my family’s farm in my home town and the sway of olive branches under a warm sun.
Solutions come when we are not engaged directly in tasks, and have the mental freedom to entertain new ideas and find connections that have previously evaded us. They’re found in the liminal space between focus and unfocus.
Practicing PCD is different from the pitfalls of ruminating — where you’re often fixated on your problems — versus trying to come up with answers. In other words, your mood accounts for a lot. If you’re away from the “busy” work but thinking of everything that could or has gone wrong, you’re not actually resting. Our off-task musings — whether purposefully positive or negative — is what makes all the difference, according to researchers.
It’s no wonder then that our greatest inspirations seem to arrive when we’re basking in the sunlight of a long hike or playfully swimming outdoors. Any entrepreneur knows the best ideas come from the unlikeliest of places. Engaging in a low-key activity you enjoy, as Pillay suggests, is a vital part of reaching deep into lost memories and connecting the dots for solutions now, and in the future.
The goal is to strike a balance between total immersion and a relaxed, wandering mind. This is where our bold, outlandish ideas will find room to grow and flourish.