Less Labor Works Better: The Value of Mind-Wandering

 In Science


“The United States is the only advanced economy in the world that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation. … The gap between paid time off in the United States and the rest of the world is even larger if we include legally mandated paid holidays, where the United States offer none, but most of the rest of the world’s rich countries offer between five and 13 paid holidays per year.”
No-Vacation Nation, Center for Economic and Policy Research,
Rebecca Ray and John Schmitt, May 2007

” It is your relaxed and easy worker, who is in no hurry, and quite thoughtless most of the while of consequences, who is your efficient worker; and tension and anxiety, and present and future, all mixed up together in our mind at once, are the surest drags upon steady progress and hindrances to our success.” 

“Just as a bicycle-chain may be too tight, so may one’s carefulness and conscientiousness be so tense as to hinder the running of one’s mind.”

– William James, “The Gospel of Relaxation”

1. An invitation for working differently

Our five-month-old girl gurgled in the pre-dawn morning and nudged me awake. A montage of media and corporate icons such as CNN and IBM floated in my dream-memory. The images gave me clarity about how to solve a client’s book promotion problem. It was not a problem I consciously aimed to solve, but had I not stayed in that half-sleep state I likely would have missed some intuitive connections and insights.

Ray Kurzweil, scientist-in-residence at Google, assigns himself a problem to solve in his dreams. Always sure to sleep for eight hours a night, he then upon awakening stays in bed for a solid 15 to 20 minutes to let his mind wander in that twilight state.

It’s a state I’ve been tracking for several years because it’s conducive to deliberate daydreaming. Deliberate daydreaming is an art that can be learned to capture those goldfish insights that otherwise swim by unheeded. . 

The amateur lets the mind wander vagrantly. The over-worked expert demands the mind work 17 hours a day. Somewhere between is business artistry.

Today, I’m taking you on a walkabout through my archives on the subject and pointing you toward several other contemporary sources. 

2. Our crisis of doing is our undoing

We work and then we crash. This is not a tenable cycle – although Americans especially have been circling this cycle for generations.

In a peculiar 1911 essay “The Gospel of Relaxation,” William James observes that Americans by temperament seem to be equipped with “bottled lightning.”  We seem more excitable, more openly expressive, more reactive, and – consequently – more tired and actually less productive than our more emotionally reserved European brethren.

American or not, even when we’re seemingly idle, we crowd our minds with information. On a typical day, we absorb – according to one 2011 study – enough information to fill about 174 newspapers.

I went to the Cape for a week with my family. I found the experience near-impossible to relax. Not only did my mind still buzz with work, but the whole Cape culture seems to equate vacationing with work-free bustle or innocuous idleness. 

Neither option feels conducive to flourishing.

3. Less forced labor works better

What if we could labor better? What if business owners, CEOs, and leaders could risk encouraging idle time and deep thinking time?

Prime your mind with a demanding problem. Take a break but engage yourself with an undemanding and non-related task. In a 2012 study published in Psychological Science, undergraduates aged 19-32 who took such a break were 41% more successful at ensuing tasks than the group that was given a demanding task. They also out-performed the group given no break. They were not necessarily more successful at generating ideas but at working through existing problems.

 Sophie Ellwood and her team at the University of Sydney, Australia, found in 2009 that a group given an unrelated task actually generated more novel ideas than those groups not given breaks.

And music-turned-cognitive psychologist at McGill University Daniel Levitin has become an advocate for more daydreaming as his research with professor of neuroscience Vinod Menon demonstrates the value of switching between attentional focus and daydream mode.

I train people and teams to flow with Intentional Focus + Deliberate Daydream

Put another way, you take Creative Mind Breaks for Productive Loafing.

Sometimes we simply need permission to Be Idle and Blessed

Rich Sheridan, CEO and Chief Storyteller of Menlo Innovations in Michigan, took a risk over a decade ago to do business as unusual. He and his team of leaders frown upon over-working for the sake of over-working.  Sheridan’s book Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love (Penguin Portfolio 2014)articulates the premium he places on delight among teams and toward customers as their uber-goal is to alleviate suffering through software development. 

4. The uncharted art of body-wandering

In tandem with mind-wandering is body-wandering. Put the body in motion for optimal deliberate daydreaming.

Merlin Coverley covers extensive ground in the writer as walker in his book The Art of Wandering, and Geoff Nicholson covers even more extensive ground in The Lost Art of Walking – which he notes should be done ideally alone and with no audiobooks or music for distraction. Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz at Stanford explain why walking boosts creativity.

 All-around creative genius David Byrne takes to the bicycle as does performance artist-cum-Jivamukti yoga mogul Sharon Gannon (as told to me in an interview).

Numerous designers, writers, and business owners take physical afternoon breaks – running, strength training, swimming, yoga. But you can shape these breaks as part of your creative continuum. It’s one way to shape your day as art.

Body-wandering, I predict, will become a new art among business artists of all suits resurrected from and recombined with ancient practices.

5. You’re your best or worst boss

Many business artists work at home, in home studios, and in mobile work places. They are their own bosses. They’re the ones calling the shots. 

If that’s you, your challenge is to be your own best boss to your best employee – your best self. 

Don’t take a “bosshole” as a model. Take someone like Rich Sheridan as a model. 

Make time for daydreaming in your day. Do business as art. 

I’m off for a walk around a pond to let that dreamy solution for my client take more definition.

Thanks for running with me,


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