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Daydream Believers: the Unfocused Mind

As a mindfulness practitioner and performance consultant, I have found that one of the primary drivers for leaders initiating mindfulness programs within their organisation is to enhance focus. Imagine their surprise when I correspondingly emphasise the importance of not focusing.

Not focusing activates the brains default mode network (DMN) creating an environment in the brain that fosters creativity, increases self-awareness, hardwires long-term memory and improves decision making. (Baird et al, 2012; Smallwood et al, 2009; Bergland, 2013; Pillay, 2017).

It turns out that focusing too much exhausts our prefrontal cortex (PFC) known as the executive centre of the brain. Aside from focus, the PFC is also responsible for rational thinking, emotion regulation, decision making, emotional intelligence and impulse control. Learning how to manage your energy in this area of the brain not only improves its performance but also the efficiency at which it operates.

The costs associated with daydreaming (productivity, relationships, attention) can often outweigh the benefits however, understanding how to take advantage of this natural process so that it becomes an advantage, is a skill that can be developed. (McMillan et al, 2013).

As a whole we spend almost half of our days lost in thought, constantly task switching as distractions emerge persistently vying for our attention. It’s not all bad news however, we can take advantage of this time by consciously stimulating the DMN. According to Srini Pillay in his recent article in HBR (May 2017), we can intentionally activate the DMN through three pathways: positive constructive daydreaming (PCD), napping and actually pretending to be someone else when problem solving.

Here's How:

1) PCD can be deliberately built into your day whilst you are performing a low-key activity (making coffee, reading the paper, washing the dishes). Essentially any task that is low demanding can enable you to explore the nooks and crannies of your mind and tap into your imagination. It consists of stimulating playful, wishful imagery and planful, creative thought (Singer, 1974).

2) Napping for as little as 10minutes has been shown to raise clarity and attentiveness. IF you’re really looking to bolster creativity you’ll need a solid 90 minutes however, longer naps have also been linked to grogginess on waking.

3) “Psychological Halloween” according to Pillay suggests a type of role-playing where you pretend to be someone else whilst problem solving. It enables you to get out of your own mindset and step into someone else’s. It enables you to let go of both your conscious and unconscious bias. The six hats approach to problem solving takes advantage of a similar concept.

Practicing mindfulness may compliment each of these practices and possibly expedite access to the DMN. Social psychologist and Harvard University professor Ellen Langer explains mindfulness as letting go of preconceived notions and viewing experiences with child-like curiosity; it incorporates changing your mindset and supports Pillays notion of behaving as someone else with fresh eyes.

Begin organising your days so that you take advantage of structured periods of focus (IE 90 minute blocks to “get shit done”) as well as periods of being unfocused. Toggling between the two will help you manage your energy, raise your performance and get those creative juices flowing.

Cortex Consulting works with individuals and organisations through developing well-being and performance initiatives. Contact Kirsten today to empower you through the process.

Photo courtesy: Peter Bernik/

Baird B., Smallwood J., Mrazek M.D., Kam J.W., Franklin M.S., & Schooler J.W. (2012). Inspired by distraction: mind wandering facilitates creative incubation. Psychological Science, Oct 1; 23(10):1117-22.

McMillan, R. L., Kaufman, S. B., & Singer, J. L. (2013). Ode to positive constructive daydreaming. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 626.

Singer, J.L. (1974). Daydreaming and the stream of thought. American Science, Jul-Aug; 62(4):417-25.

Smallwood, J., Nind, L. & O'Connor R.C. (2009). When is your head at? An exploration of the factors associated with the temporal focus of the wandering mind. Conscious Cognition, Mar; 18(1):118-25.

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