I’m on the 63 bus, 14 stops from home and my phone is on 1% battery. As the red bar flashes up on my screen and my go-to source of entertainment disappears into darkness, I am forced to stare out of the window. Contrary to what many Hollywood films suggest (cue the emotional soundtrack and melancholic rain), there isn’t much window gazing happening in modern life. Chances are, most people on public transport are craning over their phones, their books, magazines, or talking to the person next to them.
As a child, I spent a good percentage of my time daydreaming. Thanks to my parent’s alternative (read: hippy) approach to child-rearing, I didn’t have a TV until I was nine. The first decade of my life was predominantly screen-free. Like most children, there were definitely moments when I would proclaim, ‘I’m bored’, but for the majority of the time, I would be content busying myself with art projects, books or simply doing nothing.
Fast forward twenty years and there’s barely a quiet moment in my day. Silence is hard to come by when you live in a city, and our plugged-in culture is making it harder and harder to enjoy. We’re more productive than ever but as a result, there’s a pressure to optimize every waking moment. I can learn Spanish while cooking dinner, buy a weekly food shop on the tube and swipe for dates on the loo. Everyday life admin tasks are completed to a soundtrack of podcasts or audiobooks as I try to escape feelings of cultural FOMO. Daydreaming and merely doing nothing feature very little.
However, when a creative pursuit pays your bills and ideas are your currency, daydreaming is fundamental. Good ideas rarely appear while staring at a blank piece of paper (or screen). Whether it’s in the shower, at dinner with a friend or staring out that window, it’s often when you stop trying to be creative that the so-called magic happens. In fact, I only started thinking about the concept of daydreaming and this very piece when I was forced to sit with my thoughts for those remaining 13 stops of my bus journey.
Glenys Jackson, Clinical Lead for Mental Health from Bupa UK, advocates the wellbeing benefits of daydreaming, in particular when it comes to creativity. Jackson explains how letting the mind wander can lead to ‘eureka’ moments. “Mind-wandering helps us to escape from the present; giving us space to look back on the past and imagine the possibilities of our future,” Jackson told me. “You may find yourself having the sudden ability to create a solution to a problem that you hadn’t considered before,” she added.
Research backs up this viewpoint, and a 2017 study from the Georgia Institute of Technology found a link between daydreaming and increased creativity. Using MRI scans to monitor the brain in its awake resting state (when you daydream), it found that those who reported more frequent daydreaming scored higher on creative ability. A 2012 study from the University of California echoes this. When participants were tasked with coming up with alternative uses for common objects (a standard measure of creativity), those who also took part in an activity that encouraged mind wandering came up with more creative solutions by the end. “These findings suggest that mind-wandering during undemanding tasks may be a particularly fertile source of creative inspiration,” the report reads.
Daydreaming may get a bad rep, lambasted as a waste of time or lack of focus, but it seems the science suggests otherwise. Beyond its ability to boost creativity, research from the University of British Columbia discovered that daydreaming can improve problem-solving. When the researchers looked at the MRI scans of participants while daydreaming, complex problem-solving areas of the brain were seen to be highly active.
When you work for yourself, productivity can become intrinsically linked to self-worth. I often find myself thinking a productive day equates to a successful one, measuring said productivity based on words written or money earned. Doing nothing, or what appears to be nothing, can feel like a waste of time when it’s the finished product that offers the inevitable satisfaction and reward.
However, I’m beginning to realise that this ‘nothing time’ mustn’t be overlooked and I’m making efforts to try and embrace daydreaming. Technology, and the smartphone that often feels like an extension of my right arm, is the biggest obstacle in the way. Subsequently, turning off unnecessary devices (whether that’s the internet or my phone) while I’m working really helps and I ensure to sometimes purposefully forgo the podcast while I go out for a lunchtime walk, take a bath or hang out the washing. Or, if all else fails, I put my phone on airplane mode for the duration of a bus ride and partake in some self-enforced window staring.