Daydreaming can be both a liability and a significant asset, depending upon certain attributes of the wanderer, however. It can impair performance if not driven by professional challenges.
“Daydreaming can have significant upsides for one’s tendency to crack difficult challenges in new ways. This, however, presumes that people deeply care about the work they do, what attracted them to the profession in the first place,” says Markus Baer, professor of organizational behavior at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. “Daydreaming without this focus has significant downsides, which show up most directly in one’s overall performance ratings.”
It’s not always counterproductive
The study, published in the Academy of Management Journal, “depicts daydreaming as a critical mechanism accounting for the connection between the type of work people do and the level of creativity they exhibit on the job,” write coauthors Baer, Erik Dane, associate professor of organizational behavior at Olin, and Hector P. Madrid of Pontificia Universidad Católica.
Don’t mistake this activity for distraction or multitasking. Rather, the process involves thoughts disconnecting from a task and/or “stimulus environment.” The coauthors found such a wandering-thought process results in work that is highly creative and not universally counterproductive, which the business world has assumed and past research has suggested.
The researchers studied two types in particular: problem-oriented daydreams, or imaginative thoughts loosely connected to one’s challenges, and bizarre daydreams, or thoughts not linked to existing challenges or problems at all but rather improbable possibilities. As the coauthors explain, these bizarre thoughts usually involve scenarios that “might delight a writer of fantasy or science fiction.” What they found, though, wasn’t merely mental escapism.
Critical for creativity-boosting daydreaming, they found in their multi-faceted study, was professional identification—workers who are psychologically attached to their profession, who gain a sense of self from their job. When they perform cognitively demanding work, gathering both enjoyment and fulfillment from that work, their daydreams spark imaginative thoughts around the job’s tasks and problems.
The researchers tested their model via two distinct studies: (1) sampling experiences of 169 professionals in a spectrum of industries, and (2) conducting a field study of 117 professional employees and their 46 supervisors. Each study took place in South America, and the research participants averaged 33.9 and 35.9 years old, respectively.
“Conducting two different studies enabled us to test our hypotheses across a wide range of workers and triangulate our findings,” Dane says.
Daydreaming at work boosts creativity
In the first study, workers—across a wide range of businesses, though mainly service (26%) and banking or commerce (22%)—provided daily, diary-like ratings of the job challenges and their minds’ tendency to engage in the two types of daydreaming. Workers also rated the extent to which they generated new ideas and solutions during the day.
The second study involved employees across three technology consulting companies, where creativity and problem-solving are rife and where employees tend to identify strongly with their profession and its attendant values and challenges. This time, the authors also asked supervisors at those companies to rate their employees’ creativity.
Workers were significantly more likely to daydream when they confronted tricky problems and new challenges in their work. And these daydreams, in turn, reliably boosted people’s creativity, at least for professionally identified workers.
Interestingly, so long as employees’ identification with their profession was present, the researchers discovered that both problem-oriented and bizarre daydreaming had virtually no impact on performance, neither positive nor negative. However, when professional identification was lacking, daydreaming significantly compromised performance.
“What this means is that daydreaming can boost creativity but does little to kill it; on the flip side, daydreaming does little to improve overall performance but can significantly reduce it,” Madrid says.
In the end, the researchers conclude that most businesses could benefit from taking steps to remove the stigma around daydreaming at work. The mind wanders close to half of the day, previous science found, so it is unreasonable to assume that it can stay on task continuously. At the very least, perhaps we shouldn’t shun workers for getting lost in their thoughts and dreams. There might just be a new idea in there.