Here’s some unexpected work advice: try focusing less, Srini Pillay, M.D., writes in the Harvard Business Review. One good way to do that? Schedule in time for a specific type of daydreaming.
Pillay, an executive coach, CEO of NeuroBusiness Group, author and part-time assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, writes that focus—the gold standard of getting pretty much anything done—is kind of overrated.
He writes that being able to focus without distraction is an important skill to cultivate. But the type of focus we tend to value—nonstop concentration until a project or task is complete, where we often penalize ourselves for getting distracted—is not only flawed, but it impairs our ability to think clearly, which is often the very thing we need to do in order to get something done.
“Excessive focus exhausts the focus circuits in your brain,” Pillay writes, pointing to studies showing that type of focus drains us of valuable mental energy. As a result, we become more impulsive, less collaborative and generally worse at making decisions. While both focus and what Pillay calls “unfocus” are important skills, he argues that the “brain operates optimally when it toggles between focus and unfocus,” allowing us to be more creative, make better decisions and develop resiliency.
One way Pillay suggests we unfocus is to practice something called “positive constructive daydreaming.” Positive constructive daydreaming is like a more deliberate way of spacing out. The idea is that you purposefully let your mind-wander to “boost your creativity, strengthen your leadership ability and re-energize the brain,” he writes.
Here’s how it works: Pillay recommends choosing a “low-key activity such as knitting, gardening or casual reading” then letting yourself “wander into the recesses of your mind.” The crucial difference between positive constructive daydreaming and regular daydreaming is that you conjure an image of something “playful and wishful,” he writes, “like running through the woods or lying on a yacht.” Then, pivot your attention away from the world around you and into the space of your mind—with your playful or wishful scene at the ready—and continue doing whatever “low-key” activity you were doing, he writes.
Pillay points to research that supports this strategy as a way to be more productive, and uses silverware as a metaphor to help clarify what our brain is doing while we’re productively daydreaming. “Focused attention is like a fork—picking up obvious conscious thoughts that you have,” he writes, while positive constructive daydreaming is more like a spoon “for scooping up the delicious melange of flavors of your identity.” But the silverware metaphor (and perks of constructive daydreaming) doesn’t end there: you also get “chopsticks for connecting ideas across your brain (to enhance innovation), and a marrow spoon for getting into the nooks and crannies of your brain to pick up long-lost memories that are a vital part of your identity,” he writes.
Part of why this happens is because structured “unfocus” like constructive daydreaming is actually far from idle time for your brain. In fact, we’re engaging a brain circuit called the “default mode network,” also called DMN, when we do it. When we’re resting, that DMN circuit uses more energy than we normally use because our brain is doing a lot of work: “it activates old memories, goes back and forth between the past, present, and future and recombines different ideas,” Pillay writes. We can then use that new information we’ve scooped out (with our mental spoon, of course) to become more self-aware and problem-solve more creatively. Importantly, DMN “also helps you tune into other people’s thinking,” Pillay writes, which is an important skill when you work with a team.
So next time you feel like you need room for “unfocus” in your day, take a tip from Pillay and daydream. Just remember to tell your boss that you’re knitting and purposefully spacing out in the name of becoming a better thinker, innovator and team player.
Read more on Harvard Business Review.