We’ve all been there: you have an argument or tense conversation with someone. When you let your mind wander over the happenings of the day hours later, you think of the perfect comeback.
Man! If only you had that nugget in the moment you would have been so proud of yourself.
Wait. Why didn’t you have it in the moment? It’s because that part of your brain – the part that’s responsible for creativity and daydreaming – wasn’t activated.
Your brain has two big modes that it uses: the executive attention network and the default mode.
At work, we do all we can to keep employees in the executive attention network which is where we get focus, determination and attention from. We want employees to keep their eyes on the prize and produce their best work.
Daydreaming or just ‘being’ is seen as slacking off, and we can’t have that. We pay them for the hours they’re with us – that time is ours. You’ve heard this once or twice before, right?
The issue is we as employers also wonder why creativity is so often lacking in our workplaces. Why are the freelancers we pull in for special projects able to so easily shake things up and come up with incredible ideas on the fly?
Likely, it’s because they allow themselves to daydream a little more, throwing their brains into default mode and unleashing more creativity than we could ever imagine while sitting in a cubicle actively staring down at a deadline.
Default mode is when the brain is allowed to drift off or you ‘space out.’ We’re not focused on anything specific. We’re not trying to complete a task or hit a deadline on time. Our brain also isn’t ‘turned off’ during this time either, contrary to popular belief. In fact, studies show that during default mode our brains are still using roughly 95% of the energy they use when they’re tapped into the executive attention network.
Jonathan Smallwood is a neuroscientist who has studied mind-wandering for 20+ years, though the phenomenon is still relatively new to the discipline. He says that the brain is often studied by looking at how it responds to external stimuli: what pieces of it light up when someone speaks, or when movement happens, or when emotions take over.
Studying a brain in default mode doesn’t fit into those boxes, so it makes it a bit more complex to learn about.
“Scientifically, daydreaming is an interesting phenomenon because it speaks to the capacity that people have to create thought in a pure way rather than thought happening when it’s a response to events in the outside word,” Smallwood said during an interview with Manoush Zomorodi, author of Bored and Brilliant and host of WNYC’s podcast Note To Self.
In other words, there’s a whole other area of our brain responsible for pure creativity and ideas that we rarely are allowed to tap into at work since we are so overly stimulated there.
It’s potentially proactive instead of reactive. And isn’t that exactly what we want our employees to be?
In the workplace, there has been such a movement to allow people to bring their ‘full-self’ to work, whether that means greater work/life balance or the ability to be unapologetically themselves. Imagine if we allowed our employees to unleash their full brain power, including giving them some time to space out on the clock so they could come up with better ideas that produce stronger results.
You should, of course, proceed with caution when tackling this idea. For example, you can’t put the stress of a calendar event that is titled ‘Space Out For Good Ideas’ every day at noon in order to get more output. The brain can only truly reach default mode when it has time to get there and isn’t directly asked to do it. Being stimulated by a calendar invite reminding you of the task to get there is quite opposite of how it works.
Perhaps instead, you can make one day a week a ‘no meeting zone’ that allows folks to focus on their work and complete it, versus constantly being interrupted and prolonging to-do lists due to meetings. That way, tasks get completed more consistently which opens up the opportunity for a little free time on the clock to relax and space out.
Another thought around this is the idea of brainstorming sessions. With what we know now, is the modern brainstorming session broken?
The idea of placing people into a room to come up with the next great thing together is at its very foundation a task that clearly seems to be completed within the executive attention network of the brain. But if our best and most creative ideas are often hidden within default mode, how is this exercise bringing them out?
I often think back to the many times I’ve been spaced out in my car listening to music, or standing idly at the gate about to board my flight when my best ideas have hit me like a freight train. How do we work together to capture those ideas as a company when they hit an employee, without putting stress on the employee during those times to produce. How do we change the behavior of brainstorming and creativity in the workplace to not be one of active tasks and checklists, but more of relaxation, daydreaming and playing – even with billability hanging above our heads?
When we find the way to make that shift, it’s a solid bet that that’s when our companies will unleash the most impactful and world-changing ideas yet.