The upside of downtime – Why daydreamers aren’t timewasters.

"Daydreamers are time wasters" is a common cry from many in workplaces. However studies undertaken the past few years are proving otherwise. Heed the call "Give me a break" and you'll likely reap the productive rewards.

Pic credit: Yanko Peyankov
Pic credit: Yanko Peyankov

It may look like someone is doing nothing when daydreaming, however, behind that facade, the mind is whirring away with normally un-cooperative parts of their brain joining forces to produce moments of clarity.

Five researchers writing in the PNAS (the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the U.S) found that the brain activity stimulated by letting your mind wander can boost your problem-solving abilities and creativity.

So it’s not such a bad idea to ‘shut up shop’ more regularly from whatever you’re doing.

“You can’t think without space”

Says Victoria Sweet, an associate clinical professor of medicine at the University of California in San Francisco. “If you’re always doing something, there’s no way to get anything new into your mind; there’s no way to reach new conclusions”.

In the mornings at work, Sweet particularly likes to sit with her cup of coffee … and do nothing else! “You don’t have to have your coffee and read the paper and talk to someone and send an sms. Just drink the coffee” she says.

Performing repetitive tasks are fine for allowing the mind to wander.

Think ‘shower time’. Washing is second nature, repetitive and without any other distractions, allows our minds to wander. How many fantastic thoughts and ideas have ‘popped’ into your head whilst you’re in the shower or bath?

Idleness stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system

The parasympathetic nervous system importantly serves to slow the heart rate, slowing many bodily functions including our breathing. This creates a host of healthful outcomes, primarily allowing our bodies to repair as we’re in a more relaxed state.

All our busyness and our mis-belief we ‘must’ be switched on all the time can exhaust the sympathetic nervous system, the part of the autonomic nervous system that prepares the body to cope with stress.

This is not about meditating, which in effect is about controlling your mind. 

This is about unstructured time; mind wandering, which stimulates what neuroscientists call ‘the default mode network’ in the brain, where creativity and problem solving happen.

Are you ready to add (more) downtime in your day?

  • Weed out time stealers such as incessantly checking email and social feeds etcCheck only at specific times throughout the day. Add this as a notification in your email signature; “I check my emails 3 times per day to maintain my sanity”.
  • Next time you’re waiting in line / at the lights / on hold etc, use that time to let your mind drift.
  • On a walk? Performing repetitive chores? Allow your mind to wander. Try to skip listening to music during these times as too much stimuli will counter the positive effects of daydreaming. Let your mind have that space instead.
  • When at work, try to take 5 to 10 minutes a few times a day to simply watch the world go by. Best is to nip outside if that is possible. Or simply stare out the window or just around you from where you sit.

And of course, massage is the perfect tool to encourage mind wandering.

Don’t feel compelled to talk or to listen to the music your practitioner may be playing. Use it as your quiet, mind wandering time. Tell them you’d like a silent time. Corporate Massage was designed for this purpose! Consider it your ‘productive timeout’.

Funny as it may sound, idleness itself is a skill to be (re)learned.

Doing nothing takes practice. And once you start experiencing the rewards, the more ‘doing nothing’ you’ll be comfortable with. And you now know, there is a lot of power in that. There are many upsides to downtime.

‘Dream on: The upside of downtime’ (Rebecca Turner)
The Deal Magazine – Dec 2009.

‘The upside of downtime, your body on idle’
Experience Life Magazine – May 2015