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

 
 

Houston companies need cybersecurity professionals — and universities can help. Photo via Getty Images

With an increasing number of data breaches, a high job growth rate, and a persistent skills gap, cybersecurity professionals will be some of the most in-demand workers in 2022. It’s more important than ever to have people that are properly trained to protect individuals, corporations, and communities.

Demand for cybersecurity talent in Texas is high. According to Burning Glass Labor Insights, employers in the Houston metro area have posted over 24,000 cybersecurity jobs since the beginning of 2021. But the pipeline of cybersecurity workers is very low, which means many local and national companies don’t have enough people on the front lines defending against these attacks.

Unfortunately, it looks like the cybersecurity skills gap is far from over. An annual industry report from the Information Systems Security Association shows that the global demand for cybersecurity skills still far exceeds the current supply of traditionally qualified individuals, with 38 percent of cybersecurity roles currently unfilled. This shortage has real-life, real-world consequences that can result in misconfigured systems and improper risk assessment and management.

How can companies help close the cybersecurity skills gap within their own organizations? We believe it will become increasingly important to look beyond “traditionally qualified” candidates and view hands-on experience as the same, or even more important than, the certifications or bachelor degree requirements often found in cybersecurity job descriptions.

The top open cybersecurity roles in the Houston area include analysts, managers, engineers, and developers. Employees in these positions are essential to the everyday monitoring, troubleshooting, testing and analyzing that helps companies protect data and stay one step ahead of hackers. When looking to fill these roles, hiring managers should be looking for candidates with both the knowledge and experience to take on these critical positions.

Fortunately, Houston-based companies looking to establish, grow, or upskill their cybersecurity teams don’t have to go far to find top-tier talent and training programs. More local colleges and universities are offering alternative credential programs, like boot camps, that provide students with the deep understanding and hands-on learning they need to excel in the roles that companies need to fill.

2U, Inc. and Rice University have partnered to power a data-driven, market-responsive cybersecurity boot camp that provides students with hands-on training in networking, systems, web technologies, databases, and defensive and offensive cybersecurity. Over 40 percent of the students didn’t have bachelor degrees prior to enrolling in the program. Since launching in 2019, the program has produced more than 140 graduates, some of whom have gone on to work in cybersecurity roles at local companies such as CenterPoint Energy, Fulcrum Technology Solutions, and Hewlett Packard.

Recognizing programs like university boot camps as local workforce generators not only gives companies a larger talent pool to recruit from, but also increases the opportunity for cybersecurity teams to diversify and include professionals with different experiences and backgrounds. We’re living in a security-first world, and the right mix of cybersecurity talent is essential to keeping us protected wherever we are.

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David Vassar is assistant dean of professional and corporate programs at Rice University. Bret Fund is vice president overseeing cybersecurity programs at 2U.

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