Daydream Believer
November 19th, 2010

Hello?  Are you in there?  Are you paying attention?

Apparently, the answer to those questions, 46.9% of the time, is No.

According to a new study we spend nearly half of our waking hours steered by a wandering mind.  And what’s more, letting our minds wander makes us resoundingly unhappy. 

As I think about this premise in my own life, it rings true.  I let my mind wander a lot, but something about the aimlessness of it is actually unsatisfying.  When I look at my professional life I feel the best about myself and my career on days when I’m particularly engaged.  On those days I am more invested and more productive.  On those days I feel good about having spent a day in an office, running to and from meetings, and sorting through e-mails.  On days when I am disengaged I may go through all the same motions, but they lack meaning and significance.

What baffles me about this though, is that I’m still inclined to let my mind wander as it does.  Are my meetings really that much more interesting on “engaged” days than on “disengaged” days?  Likely not.  And if I know that I am happier when I am on task then why do I continue to let myself jot down grocery lists, Christmas gift ideas, and the color scheme of my future home when I know I should be paying attention to a colleague’s presentation?   

The article that first pointed me onto this topic goes on to tie the aforementioned study to mindfulness, which is a concept that has never really resonated with me (probably because the word itself gets the wind knocked out of it by my own pragmatism and disinclination toward anything new-agey).  But unhappiness is a word that gets my attention.  I certainly don’t want to be unhappy. 

[Everything from this point on is rooted in the statistical significance of a sample size of one: my own mind.  Proceed at your own risk.]

I wonder if we have such trouble staying engaged because we don’t give our minds a break.  We are constantly stimulated.  We are always within arm’s reach of a phone call, a television, a streaming video, a text message, or an e-mail.  We juggle home and professional commitments.  We use our down time to stimulate our minds further with various forms of entertainment.  When do our increasingly-taxed minds rest?

I am not here to advocate mental laziness (which would most certainly fly in the face of the very premise of this blog).  Rather, I wonder whether scheduling some mental downtime might make our overall level of engagement higher.  I read an essay in a fitness magazine a few years back by a marathoner who found that by taking one-minute walk breaks throughout the race he was able to quicken his overall pace.  If we schedule mental walk breaks – times that are earmarked for mental idleness, that are devoid of phone calls, e-mails, books, or conversation – mightn’t we be better positioned to stay actively engaged in our lives the rest of the time?

I haven’t the faintest idea if this little paradigm has merit.  But I aim to find out.

10 Responses to “Daydream Believer”

  1. Aidan Donnelley Rowley @ Ivy League Insecurities Says:

    I have always treasured my wandering mind. As a writer and a person, I think there are great benefits to letting our minds take us in various directions. I do agree that, at a certain level, this can become problematic as if we are constantly wandering we are never truly here. Interesting post. Must think about it some more!

  2. Says:

    I daydream…ALL THE TIME. Seriously. I was born daydreaming. I like your theory…our brains are so overtaxed, that they snag the wandering when they can get it. But then again, I daydreamed when I was 8 years old and had nothing to do but a page of math homework.

    Also, I feel the need to put in a plug for “mindfulness”, despite its new-age associations. All it really means is 1) paying attention to the experience of doing whatever you’re doing in that moment, and 2) refraining from judging yourself for what you’re experiencing mentally and emotionally. When I worked with uber-practical Duke students, I pitched it as a way to make their study time more efficient, and they jumped right on board. And I think, quite frankly, it’s an incredibly important skill. How much do I miss of a walk with the dogs if I’m paying zero attention and letting my mind wander to the load of laundry I need to do?

  3. Gale Says:

    Aidan – I think you’re right that it’s important to let our minds wander in order to explore new thoughts. Especially in your role as a fiction writer I’m sure the ability to let your mind wander is critical. I don’t know if it’s what the study/article intended, but I took it as letting your mind wander when you need to be focused on something at hand. For me, at least, this is most relevant in my professional life. When I do it well, I enjoy it. When I do it absent-mindedly, I don’t.

    Anne – Thanks for your “mindfulness” plug. It’s easy for me to dismiss valid concepts when they are dressed in new-agey terms. When you put it this way (paying attention to what you’re doing when you’re doing it) it resonates with me much more. In a way (as your Duke students aptly noted) it makes you more efficient.

  4. Laura H. Says:

    I am a daydream believer! Through my employer I took the Birkman test a few years ago and I learned that on the “activity” portion of the test I scored 2 (out of 100!) which means I need a lot of freedom to set my own pace, time for quiet reflection and stimulation of ideas, and that I get very mentally exhausted from tedious tasks. I try to tell my husband (who I’m sure would score high on the activity scale) that this is why I always want to sit down and chill out with my own thoughts after the kids go to bed and before I start the dishes or any other evening chore!
    I would say this is actually the opposite of mental laziness (although it sometimes is laziness as to the dirty dishes). I’m rarely thinking about lounging on a beach (although I take vacation planning very seriously and will daydream about making those plans)…I daydream about side business plans, my career path, behavior challenges with my children, improving relationships with my family and friends, planning future activities, etc. Sometimes I do wander to “To Do” lists and Christmas gift lists, but for the most part I’m convinced that my daydreams will one day lead me to invent something like velcro or the Huffington Post! I totally thought of those stupid decorative flowers/super heroes/ etc. you snap onto Crocs before they were made…if only I had executed that idea!!! :)

  5. Says:

    By the way, at first I was so charmed by your title. Very clever. Now I’m mad at you because I have that freakin’ Monkees song in my head. Thank you.

  6. Gale Says:

    Anne – I feel your pain. I titled this post last night and fell asleep singing it in my mind.

  7. Shawna Says:

    Yep, the title has already got that stupid song going round and round in my little head. And I say stupid only because I can’t seem to get rid of it.

    Loved this post. I have often felt guilty about the hour and a half break I take most afternoons while my preschooler naps. Some days I use it productively to write or read or clean. But often I just lie beside her and let my mind wander. I come out of those moments feeling mostly refreshed and get this: happy. Until the guilt sets in of course!!

    oh,that song.

  8. BigLittleWolf Says:

    “Steered by a wandering mind…”


    On a good day.


  9. Kathryn Says:

    “If we schedule mental walk breaks – times that are earmarked for mental idleness, that are devoid of phone calls, e-mails, books, or conversation – mightn’t we be better positioned to stay actively engaged in our lives the rest of the time?”

    That is exactly the premise behind meditation, and while there is nothing “new” agey about meditation it is directly linked to mindfulness.

    Sometimes labeling things too early can make us get in our way. You never know… you might be more “new agey” than you think. And that’s good.

  10. Gale Says:

    Kathryn – Thanks for this feedback. You’re not the only one to point out that mindfullness is really just a new agey title applied to an age-old concept. I have a concept of meditation, however, that involves thinking about nothing, or perhaps one specific thing. Meditation has always sounded to me like work. My idea in this post was to disengage from things, not intentionally engage on something new. My understanding of meditation does not include mental idleness. I’ll be the first to admit that I really don’t know much about meditation, but perhaps I should learn a bit. Thanks again for commenting.