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.

The Rice Management Company has broken ground on the renovation of the historic Midtown Sears building, which will become The Ion. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

The Ion — a to-be entrepreneurial hub for startups, universities, tech companies, and more — is, in a way, the lemonade created from the lemons dealt to the city by a snub from Amazon.

In 2018, Amazon narrowed its options for a second headquarters to 20 cities, and Houston didn't make the shortlist.

"That disappointment lead to a sense of urgency, commitment, and imagination and out of that has come something better than we ever could have imagined," David Leebron, president of Rice University, says to a crowd gathered for The Ion's groundbreaking on July 19.

However disappointing the snub from Amazon was, it was a wake-up call for so many of the Houston innovation ecosystem players. The Ion, which is being constructed within the bones of the historic Midtown Sears building, is a part of a new era for the city.

"Houston's on a new course to a new destination," says Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Here are some other overheard quotes from the groundbreaking ceremony. The 270,000-square-foot building is expected to be completed in 18 months.


The historic Sears building in Midtown will transform into The Ion, a Rice University-backed hub for innovation. Courtesy of Rice University


The Sears opened in 1939. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

“We have the capacity — if we work together — not only to make this a great innovation hub, but to do something that truly represents the Houston can-do, collaborative spirit.”

— David Leebron, president of Rice University. Leebron stressed the unique accomplishment the Ion has made to bring all the universities of Houston together for this project. "When we tell people the collaboration that has been brought together around this project, they are amazed," he says.

“The nation is seeing what we already know in the city of Houston. That this city has the greatest and most creative minds. We are a model for inclusion among people and cultures from everywhere. We are a city that taps the potential of every resident, dares them to dream big, and we provide the tools to make those dreams come true.”

— Mayor Sylvester Turner, who says he remembers shopping in the former Sears building as a kid, but notes how Houston's goals have changed, as has the world.

“When this store opened in 1939, it showcased a couple of innovations even back then: The first escalator in Texas, the first air conditioned department store in Houston, the first windowless department store in the country.”

— Senator Rodney Ellis, who adds the request that The Ion have windows.

“Many people ask us, ‘why not just tear down the old building and start new?’ We actually see this as a very unique opportunity for companies and entrepreneurs to be located within a historic building, while benefiting from an enhanced structure, state-of-the-art technology, and Class A tenant comforts.”

— Allison Thacker, president of the Rice Management Company. She describes the environment of being a beehive of activity.

“[As program partner for The Ion,] our mission is to build the innovation economy of Houston one entrepreneur at a time.”

— Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston. Rowe describes Station's role as a connector between startups, venture capital firms, major corporations, and more.