The Creative Benefits Of Daydreaming And Idleness
Everyone brags about hustling, productivity, and the perfect morning routine. But it could be that doing nothing, and letting your mind just wander, might be the missing link in being more creative.
In my school days, kids who daydreamed were called lazy. Or stupid. It happened to me a few times.
Schools can be odd places. Like little factories churning out diligent and willing workers. They prize efficiency – but not creativity. Maybe in the early years, when there are crayons and reading is fun. But work soon beats out play, and you learn to rush from activity to activity, lest you pause to wonder what it’s all for.
Very few of my teachers ever encouraged me to stop and wonder why.
One was my grade 3 teacher. He had us play sport every day. Our grades were awesome. One afternoon, he made us lie down on the grass outside our classroom and look up at the clouds for quite a while. Then we had to write a short story about something we imagined in the clouds. I wrote a poem about a lion. I wrote a lot of poems back then. A few years later, I went to a different school, one with a programme for ‘gifted’ children. I did a lot of work – challenging stuff, high school maths and science forced onto our middle-school bodies. I stopped writing poetry.
School taught me one abiding lesson. There is no place in the adult world for idleness, play, and creativity.
Much of our resistance to daydreaming comes from experiencing this system. It’s bad to daydream. It’s wrong to be idle. And this makes many adults suspicious of creativity, even if they never explicitly say so. Because creativity had no place in the process of turning children into workers. Slowly taking away the crayons, and the art, and the room to express yourself, to play and daydream, school cemented the idea that creativity belongs in childhood.
But, you are reading this. So you don’t believe that, do you? You believe creativity should be part of your present.
So daydream. Be idle. Play. Let creativity back into your life.
The evidence connecting daydreaming and idleness with creativity is strong. Idleness allows ideas to incubate and gives us time to recover. It gives our minds a chance to change their process and to access broader understandings of who we are and the challenges we face. Rather than doing nothing when we are idle, our brain actually becomes more active, increasing blood flow and becoming more organised. This default, or resting, state is more likely to produce creative ideas, or ‘a-ha moments’, than when are just plugging away at a task.
‘Far from idleness being the root of all evil, it is rather the only true good.’
– Soren Kierkegaard
Maybe we worry too much about focus and should instead be exploring the power of un-focussing. Much like what we learnt about walking, engaging in diverse activities that let our mind wander.
Silence, like music, can change our heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure. This can make us more receptive to new ideas and insights.
Our mood seems to be related to mind-wandering, and the ability to let our thoughts drift can foster greater creativity and invite inspiration. In some ways, the benefits to creativity of mind-wandering are similar to those of sleep.
In our smartphone age, embracing idleness and the joys of a wandering mind requires some effort, because we all carry powerful distraction engines with us every day. Like so many, I got hooked on my smartphone as a way to avoid boredom, filling those small holes in the day.
But boredom isn’t something to cure. It’s something to enjoy. Boredom is a prompt, like a blinking cursor on the screen, inviting us to create. Our minds already respond to this; they naturally gear up for creative work, for coming up with ideas and connections.
We should reframe boredom. Instead of saying ‘I feel bored’ and associating that with guilt, shame, or a need to be distracted by some electronic entertainment, we should say to ourselves, ‘Great! I feel bored, so that means I’m ready to be creative.’