Let the mind wander

Daydreaming — when done correctly — can be good for business

Letting your mind wander — if focused on the right things — can be a good use of your business day. Getty Images

The mind is prone to wander. Commonly known as daydreaming – the state of mental disconnection from the task at hand – it can take up as much as half of the typical workday.

Some research suggests this may be a good thing. Wandering minds help us adapt to problems, the reasoning goes, because by briefly changing our focus, we can solve problems more creatively.

That's not to say daydreaming is always benign. We prefer that the E.R. surgeon focus on the operation. The boxer is best off concentrating on slipping a punch. In general, when it comes to one-time tasks, daydreaming is suboptimal.

Rice Business professor Erik Dane has tried to bridge these two different views of mind wandering at work. In a recent paper, Dane suggests that while daydreaming can undermine productivity, it is also a critical problem-solving tool.

In an extensive literature review, Dane explored a series of questions about how mind wandering works. Based on current research, he concluded that a wandering mind can be positive if where it wanders is work related. Such a wandering mind helps employees conceive of possibilities not previously considered.

There's a vast difference between daydreaming and plain distraction, Dane notes. Turning your attention from composing a strategy memo to answering an annoying text from the cable company is not mind- wandering – it's digression (or multitasking). And when you look up from cooking dinner to see your neighbor hacking down your bamboo, that's not mind wandering – it's annoyance.

Mind wandering implies instead that your thoughts have drifted from the present altogether. From a neuroscience perspective, it is a journey into the brain's "default network" – a mode of functioning that occurs when the mind is not consumed with demands in one's surroundings. When you're driving home and forget to stop at the grocery store because you're envisioning your imminent vacation to Barcelona, that's mind wandering.

According to Dane, mind wandering can be good for businesses – if it revolves around work issues. Wandering on your downtime may steal a few moments from your personal life, but it's a powerful way to take advantage of relaxation to solve professional problems.

There are other ways mind wandering can be positive. Think for a moment about James Thurber's classic character Walter Mitty, whose mind is constantly taking flights of fancy. He's not as hapless as he might seem. Outside the work context, Dane writes, mind wandering allows us to conceive of possibilities, scenarios and images disconnected from time and, in some cases, basic feasibility. But it's the quintessential first step of innovation.

Another type of mind wandering involves movement through time. Past, present and future mingle. As a manager mulls strategies for handling a problem employee, her thoughts may slide to a time when she too was considered a problem at work. The memories, context and details swirling through her mind may redirect her toward a less-obvious solution to the conundrum.

But mind wandering is not all positive. It can easily devolve into thoughts and feelings that inhibit performance. The stress from negative daydreams may even discourage a worker from focusing on a task – or doing it at all.

To facilitate job performance, Dane writes, it's important to keep in mind your work goals. It's also essential to stay positive – even as you let your thoughts drift. In other words, focus on goals, their associated tasks and sub-goals, and steer clear of distracting worries, which can keep you from finding solutions.

The more you succumb to anxiety, Dane warns, the more the associated cognitive effects will undermine your performance. It's a skill, in other words: relax enough to be creative, yet keep the negative thoughts in check. Like getting comfortable with new software or maximizing production on an assembly line, productive mind wandering is learnable, Dane promises. And unlike a computer or a car factory, the tools within our brains only grow more productive with use.

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This article originally appeared on Rice Business Wisdom.

Erik Dane is an associate professor of management at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Building Houston

 
 

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Kerri Smith of the Rice Alliance, Trevor Best of Syzygy Plasmonics, and Muriel Foster of gBETA Houston. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from cleantech to startup acceleration — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Kerri Smith, managing director of the Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator

Kerri Smith of the Rice Alliance joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Rice's Clean Energy Accelerator. Photo courtesy of Rice

As the managing director for the Rice Alliance for Entrepreneurship and Technology's Clean Energy Accelerator, Kerri Smith is focused not only on the program's cohorts but on supporting the Houston cleantech ecosystem as a whole. CEA works with Greentown Houston, which is just next door to the program's home at The Ion, and the Greater Houston Partnership's Houston Energy Transition Initiative.

"Rice Alliance has a strong history of demonstrating collaboration with a number of organizations," Smith says. "I think one of the primary benefits that we have in these collaborative opportunities is to ensure that we are collectively building a capable and diverse pipeline of talent to solve for these problems and provide them with access to experiencing all of the benefits of our ecosystem."

Smith shares more about what she's looking for in the second cohort of CEA on a recent Houston Innovators Podcast episode, as well as what she sees as Houston's role in the energy transition. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Trevor Best, co-founder and CEO of Syzygy Plasmonics

Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy Plasmonics, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the growth of his cleantech startup. Photo courtesy of Syzygy

Trevor Best is gearing up to fundraise for and scale his cleantech startup, Syzygy Plasmonics. The company has also grown its team to 60 people and is preparing to move into a new 45,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Pearland this summer.

"What we're seeing is the market's appetite for our kind of technology — deep tech for decarbonization in energy and chemicals — is really high. If we want to meet global demand for our product, we need to get ready to scale," Best says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Best is keeping a close eye what the market will be looking for, and the interest seems to be in hydrogen as a clean energy solution, which has positioned Syzygy in a great place. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Muriel Foster, director of gBETA Houston

Muriel Foster, a native Houstonian, is the new director of gBETA Houston. Image via LinkedIn

A national startup accelerator has announced its fifth local cohort, which includes five Houston companies participating in the spring 2022 class, and the new leader that will oversee the program. Muriel Foster is the newly named director of gBETA Houston, which is designed to help guide early-stage startups find early customer traction, connect with mentors, and more.

“The five companies selected for the Spring 2022 cohort tackle unique problems that have propelled them to create a business that solves the issues they once faced," Foster says in a news release. "From public speaking, apparel comfort, and food delivery from underrepresented restaurant owners, these founders have found their niche and are ready to continue to make an enormous impact on the Houston ecosystem."

A Houston native, she has her master’s in public administration from Texas Southern University and a bachelor’s in marketing from Oklahoma State University. Her background includes work in the nonprofit sector and international business consulting in Cape Town, South Africa, and she's worked within programming at organizations such as MassChallenge, BLCK VC, and now gener8tor. Click here to read more.

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