Wonderful to let your thoughts float away for a while, to let it wander in different directions just to relax. Sounds like lying on a sunny beach, no stress, no hassle. Often insightful ideas pop up when you are deliberately not focused or aiming to ‘solve’ an issue. No wonder that mind wandering is associated with creativity (1) and innovative thinking. We need to let the mind wonder by letting it wander (hmm…; or is it the other way around?). No-one is to question the relevancy of mind wandering, unless, of course if you want to ask the productivity question. No doubt wondering by wandering is a vital explorative human activity, emptying, open, and inquisitive. But on closer inspection one could ask when, at what occasions does the mind wander? Probably when you are bored, not paying attention, get sleepy, or, indeed, lie on the beach. Mind wandering is not the same as reflection, which is the thoughtful, deliberate inquiry to understand your actions (after Dewey. 2). You could say reflection is post-thinking, mind wandering on the opposite is pre-thinking. From a productivity perspective this would put both in place.
A study on creative thinking looked at a specific instance of mind wandering, i.e, what happens in solving a numeric problem. It turned out that ‘solvers’ had more frequent moments of mind wandering during incubation time than non-solvers. The authors state that mind wandering contributes to insightful problem solving. A pity is that we do not learn much about the nature of mind wandering in this study (no qualitative accounts were given). Was it deliberate thinking or free floating daydreaming, or what…?
Sometimes you have to let your thoughts simmer and flourish for a while. Then, it is best is not to think of the issue under hand too specifically. “Take a break”, would be the advice. But sometimes it is better to cautiously scrutinize what you produce as ideas. ”Stay focused” is the proper message then. The mind works in wondrous ways. It is like in the lyrics from Ryback’s song Fairy Tale “Nowadays, I cannot find her But when I do, we’ll get a brand new start “.
Tengteng Tan, Hong Zou, Chuansheng Chen & Jin Luo (2015) Mind Wandering and the Incubation Effect in Insight Problem Solving, Creativity Research Journal, 27:4, 375-382, To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10400419.2015.1088290