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

 
 

We could all use a little IT help right now. Photo by Maskot/Getty

Though it's been around since 2012, JPMorgan Chase's Force for Good program feels especially vital right now. The project connects Chase employee volunteers with hundreds of nonprofits around the world to build sustainable tech solutions that help advance their missions.

Even better, Houston and Dallas nonprofits have a leg up in the selection process. Organizations located in or near one of Chase's tech centers get priority, and that includes H-Town and Big D.

The government-registered nonprofits, foundations, and social enterprises (we're talking everything from food banks to theater companies) selected to participate will have access to a team of up to 10 highly skilled technologists, who will spend approximately four hours per week advising over an eight month period.

Each nonprofit is asked to propose the specific project that would benefit from technology guidance, and it needs to be something the organization can maintain when the project period is over.

"We have more than 50,000 technologists at JPMorgan Chase around the world and they're passionate about giving back," says Ed Boden, global lead of Technology for Social Good programs. "Force for Good gives our employees the opportunity to utilize their unique skills while also learning new ones, to build technology solutions for the organizations that need it most."

If you're the director, CEO, or other person in charge at a nonprofit and you still have questions about Force for Good, Chase has put together a free webinar to help explain further.

These webinars cover the overall program experience and application process, and it's highly recommended that nonprofits watch before applying. The live webinar dates (with Texas times) are June 2 from 1:30-2:30 pm and June 8 from 10:30-11:30 am.

A pre-recorded webinar will also be available for nonprofits to review after the live webinar dates.

Since 2012, Force for Good has worked with over 320 organizations in 22 cities, contributing over 190,500 hours of knowledge and skills.

"It is a great program that can provide strong impact for nonprofit organizations that need technology help," says Chris Rapp, a Dallas-based Chase executive. "As a father and husband of two Dallas artists, I am a huge believer in helping the arts grow and hopefully we can help do this through Force For Good."

The application process opened on May 28, with a deadline to submit by July 10.

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