How Controlled Daydreaming Can Be a Powerful Tool for Creativity, Problem-Solving, and Strategic Planning

The American artist Edward Hopper painted many windows. In one of his paintings, which gained renewed notoriety during the pandemic, a woman sits on a bed in a near-empty room, peering out a window that looks out on the New York City skyline dotted with water towers. There’s a timeless quality to the painting— like the subject has no sense of urgency.

As it turns out, Hopper was not only fascinated by windows, he had a habit of gazing out of them himself. The late artist’s wife, Josephine Nivison, also a painter, was once asked what was the most difficult aspect of being married to Hopper. She replied, “It took me a long time to realize that when he is looking out the window, he is working.”

Nivison isn’t talking about work in the traditional sense. She’s referring to the productive daydreaming that was requisite to the artist’s creative process.

Daydreaming often gets a bad rap. Adults spend almost half of their waking hours daydreaming, and it often makes them unhappy. But there’s a caveat: people engage in different kinds of daydreaming and some forms can be highly beneficial for business (not to mention, your wellbeing). I keep this in mind during downtime at our Jotform offices and during my daily commute. Here’s a closer look at a more productive approach to daydreaming, counterintuitive as that sounds.

When the mind wanders constructively

We’ve all been subject to a mind that wanders to less-than-happy places.

What if I don’t pass the exam?

What if a competitor overtakes the market?

What if I can’t come up with another useful product?

Left to our own devices, our daydreaming tends toward negative or neutral territory. And afterward, we’re left feeling just that — negative or neutral.

But another type of mind-wandering, which is more intentional, can leave us feeling more creative, better problem solvers, better planners, and more likely to achieve our goals. Experts call it “positive constructive daydreaming.” Fortunately, we can guide our minds toward this type of free-association thinking. In one study, some participants were prompted to imagine something positive, such as a fantasy of having superpowers or the memory of their first kiss. These people were 50 percent more likely to feel positive after the session.

But the reality is, it’s harder to engage in positive constructive daydreaming. Letting the mind ruminate and obsess over what could go wrong is almost effortless. According to Erin Westgate, a psychology professor at the University of Florida, positive daydreaming is a “heavier cognitive lift.” It’s more mentally taxing on our already overburdened, information-flooded brains.

Our minds may be as rebellious as my youngest son at a candy store, but luckily, there are strategies for taming them. A little effort can go a long way. Here are some tips for taking the reins of your daydreaming.

How to positively, constructively daydream

The first step toward more intentional daydreaming is to carve out time for it, either by penciling it directly into your calendar (or entering it into your e-calendar) or committing to go device-free during in-between times — those idle minutes while you ride the train or wait at the post office. Consider it part of your process. No one would blink if a musician wrote a song while sitting on the beach, or if an author came up with a great turn of phrase while walking in the park. But for entrepreneurs and knowledge workers, there’s an inordinate pressure to be productive and tick items off your to-do list during every second of the workday. Everyone needs space to let ideas marinate.

That’s why Dr. Richard Davidson, founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, tells his graduate students to dedicate an hour each week to daydreaming. He told Bloomberg that he encourages them to sit alone, with no stimuli, and to look inward — to inspect their minds.

Companies like Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn have caught on to the benefits of giving employees time for unstructured exploring, offering different versions of “20 percent time,” during which employees can daydream, experiment, and explore their interests without worrying about results. This mandated daydreaming has led to some of the companies’ most innovative products. I can attest that our Demo Days, when Jotform employees share their latest ideas, no matter how far-fetched, and offer each other feedback has led to some of our most successful tools as well.

Another interesting caveat of the power of daydreaming: researchers have found that mind wandering has more significant benefits for people who identify with their profession and care about what they do. Specifically, when people were engaged with their work, and found it enjoyable and fulfilling, their daydreams sparked imaginative thoughts about the job’s tasks and problems.

I think the takeaway is extremely important: leaders must do what they can to ensure that employees’ jobs are personally meaningful. At Jotform, I try to do that by promoting an automation-first mindset — encouraging employees to automate as much of their busywork as possible to leave time for more meaningful stuff, including examining their minds and any bubbling ideas.

I also regularly signal to employees that their downtime is important. In a world where social media constantly reminds us of how hard everyone else seems to be hustling, it’s essential to offer a counter narrative; a different way to succeed. Because for many creators, some of the most valuable work that we do is barely perceivable. It takes place while we’re lying on a bench or gazing out a window. The results aren’t instantly quantifiable. The gratification is not immediate. But now more than ever, with the rise of AI, it’s exactly the kind of work that only humans can do, that we should think about protecting.

Aytekin Tank is the founder and CEO of Jotform and the bestselling author of Automate Your Busywork. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from Jotform users. You can reach Aytekin from his official website

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