Unfocused. Unproductive. Even strong labels like Attention Deficit Disorder.
Mind-wandering has quite a few synonyms, but studies have found that mind wandering and creativity may go hand-in-hand.

I was a mind-wanderer as a child. And my first- and second-born daughters are also mind-wanderers. I was often chastised for it, with my mind venturing off into far off areas of my brain when I should have been paying attention in class (this usually happened in math class, which is one subject I never liked- probably because my mind was always wandering and I was missing instruction!). So from these experiences, I grew up thinking that an unfocused mind was because I was lazy. Or not being productive. Or unfocused.

These thoughts quickly spilled over to my daughters as they became school age. I would get easily frustrated with them while doing something like homework at the end of the day because if I wasn’t on top of them every second, they would stop what they were doing to doodle or just…think.

“Pay attention!” “Focus!” “You’re wasting time!” were all things I often said to them.

My oldest daughter does well in school but I know that she often has trouble focusing. She has since she was young, and the comments we would often get from her teachers were “She does great as soon as she puts her mind to it.”

Today my daughter is an avid artist, drawing all day long and even selling her artwork at a local farmer’s market.

It is obvious that my middle daughter has the same sort of issues. She does well at school, but she often has trouble focusing. Once she does focus, she quickly picks up on the lesson, but she is often found thinking about scenarios for play in her head.

In fact, you can often find her alone in her room, making up intricate stories with her dolls and Barbies. She also loves to create movies, plays, and stage acts with singing and dancing. And lots of “Mama, watch this!”

I recently found studies that discussed the connection between mind-wandering and creativity, and how some scholars suggest allowing your mind to wander to boost creativity.

And as an adult, I have finally come full circle in my understanding with the connection between mind-wandering and creativity.

Think about it (no pun intended): You are stuck on a problem at work and you can’t figure out what to do. You know there is a solution but nothing you seem to try works. But after walking away for a bit (a few minutes, an hour, or even a day) you let your mind rest from overthinking and voila, you have a solution.

How many times has that happened to you?

Or what about this: You have been working all day, feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. Answers at work just didn’t come to you. But now, as you lay in bed at the end of the night, everything you thought was impossible earlier that day finally seems do-able. Or you have a thousand ideas for your business. Or you have a new way to tackle that project.

When your mind is at ease and resting, it can be its most creative in coming up with solutions to your problems.

In a study published by the Association for Psychological Science, researchers found that after a period of rest, participants were able to more easily and more creatively come up with a novel idea of use for a common item than their counterparts.

The study reads:

“Compared with engaging in a demanding task, rest, or no break, engaging in an undemanding task during an incubation period led to substantial improvements in performance on previously encountered problems. Critically, the context that improved performance after the incubation period was associated with higher levels of mind wandering but not with a greater number of explicitly directed thoughts about the UUT. These data suggest that engaging in simple external tasks that allow the mind to wander may facilitate creative problem solving.”

"The findings reported here provide arguably the most direct evidence to date that conditions that favor mind-wandering also enhance creativity,” write the authors. In fact, they add, mind-wandering may “serve as a foundation for creative inspiration.”

In another study, published in Psychology Science, researchers had physicists and professional writers complete journal entries every night for two weeks. Each journal entry had to describe the person’s most creative idea of the day and answer questions surrounding when that creative idea came about.

“The context-related questions indicated whether creative ideas occurred spontaneously during unrelated thinking, or whether they resulted from a period of continuous hard work focused on the idea. For example, people identified whether each idea came to mind while they were ‘absorbed in the general idea or problem’ or while they were “‘thinking about something unrelated to the general idea or problem.’ They also indicated whether they had been “working steadily on the problem/project”, or had found themselves “at an impasse” when their idea came to mind. Finally, they expressed whether each idea felt like an “aha!” moment, and rated how important and creative they believed each idea to be.

The researchers found that 20% of the creative ideas occurred during mind wandering, or more precisely, spontaneous task-independent thinking. A deeper analysis suggested that mind wandering was particularly helpful when people struggled to overcome an impasse in their thinking. At an impasse, 26% of people’s creative insights came during mind wandering. But when making steady progress with no impasse, mind wandering was responsible for only 14% of their best ideas.”
I can quite honestly say that I have had this personal experience as I’m sure many others have had, too. A few months ago I was working on a web design project. I had to connect an email service (you know, where you get newsletters from companies) and for some reason, the newsletter service couldn’t find the website to connect to it. I was so confused, and I sat at my desk for 2.5 hours trying to figure it out. This is something I do almost every single day and I just could not troubleshoot it.

Later that night as I was making dinner I realized the problem- the website wasn’t live yet so the newsletter service couldn’t find it to connect to it! It was such a simple fix but having my mind wander and work on other tasks allowed to finally see the solution to the problem.

What about our kids?

“Daydreaming and pretend play are associated with greater creativity in children,” confirms David B. Feldman, Ph.D., a professor in the department of counseling psychology at Santa Clara University citing research published in the Creativity Research Journal. “For many kids, fantasies form a basis for social activity with their friends, a way to explore their interests, and a vehicle for engaging in creative pursuits like drawing or storytelling.”

So if daydreaming and mind-wandering is important, how do we cultivate this mind-wandering and creativity in a society that focuses on “paying attention?”

If your child is in a traditional school setting, it may be difficult to help them understand that sometimes coming to head with a difficult task or concept might be better served if they take a “brain break.” And even if they understand that they need a brain break, their teachers may not give them one. But you can cultivate this at home and encourage your child’s school to incorporate times of mind wandering, brain breaks, or encouraging those types of “wonder” experiences during class time.

For younger children who still may be at home, play is a great way to encourage creativity and mind-wandering. In fact, during those early years, you will often hear educators say, “They learn through play.” And this is very true. Your child will not only learn academic skills during play, but they will also learn social-emotional skills.

If your child is in school encourage the teachers to understand that if your child gets up in the middle of class or is fiddling around, they may be allowing their brain to take a break to jump into creativity again. “As described in a Fast Company article, it showed that engaging in an unrelated and cognitively easy task that lets the mind wander can help people find some creative solutions to challenging problems. So, students who get up in the middle of class to sharpen pencils or peel the labels off of crayons may be in actuality revving up their creativity and problem-solving. Teachers may want to create structures to help students get these benefits in a less disruptive or messy way.”

In an article in Mulitbriefs.com, they state, “When it comes to goal-setting and achievement, daydreaming helps you have a more clear vision of what you want and steps to achieving it. Essentially, the imagination becomes a vehicle for concentrating, visualizing and manifesting your desired outcome.”

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