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In Which I Get Lost in My Own Head—or, In Defense of Daydreaming

September 6, 2018


Get your head out of the clouds.


Earth to [insert your name here].


Hey, anyone in there?


Ever notice the negative connotations of all these comments about daydreaming? People don’t say them to you as a compliment: Hey, I noticed you were daydreaming again. Good job.


No, in our busy world, anyone who has time to daydream must be lazy, right? After all, there’s work to do, money to earn, kids to chauffeur, TV shows to binge. Who has time to daydream?


Well, I hope you do.


The Power of Daydreaming

I’m not ashamed to admit I’m a daydreamer. In fact, I’d say I’m downright proud of it. Because something magical happens when we daydream: we come up with new ideas, find ways out of problems that seemed insurmountable, even invent new worlds. That’s some pretty powerful stuff.


Since I’m a writer, my mind naturally jumps to the benefits of daydreaming for writers. How else do you come up with stories about characters who’ve never existed, worlds no one has ever been to? But it’s not only writers who can reap rewards from daydreaming. Do you think Albert Einstein just plucked his theories out of the air, fully formed? Of course not. He had to spend a lot of time simply thinking about them, probably sometimes in a way that made it look like he was doing nothing at all. Or, to take a more contemporary model, what about Steve Jobs? Do you think that first Apple computer sprang from his hands one day, without any preliminary thought? Preposterous, right?


Give Yourself Permission

But with 1,001 things to do every day, how can you justify taking time to simply stare off into space?


The better question is, how can you afford not to pause and take time to just think?


In fact, spending time daydreaming can make you more productive. Long before I ever turn to the page, I turn an idea over and over in my mind, daydreaming about my characters, picturing them walking through scenes. That way, when I go to write, I already have a feel for my characters and how they will act.


But what if I come up with ideas I never use? Isn’t that a waste of time?




Just the very act of daydreaming gives you a chance to exercise your creativity, to stretch your imagination, to grow as a thinker. You’ll bring all of that to the page with you the next time you sit down to write.


When Am I Supposed to Fit This In?

That’s the big question isn’t it? Fortunately, daydreaming is something you can easily fit in while doing other tasks at the same time. I’m not saying you should be daydreaming while you’re doing something that requires your full concentration, like during an important meeting (just like I tell students that daydreaming is good as long as it’s not while their teacher is talking).


But think of all the tasks you do each day that don’t require your undivided attention. Taking a walk. Doing dishes or laundry. Preparing a meal. Showering.


Too often, I think our temptation is to fill up this non-thinking time with background entertainment: music, an audiobook, a movie. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. But what if, at least some of the time, we turned off the entertainment and instead listened to our own thoughts?


At first it might seem weird—maybe too quiet if you’re used to a lot of noise—but after a while, you might be surprised at what you get out of it. For example, I never bring earbuds along when I walk my dog in the morning. Instead, I listen to the sounds of the wind, the birds, the dogs she sets to barking as we walk past. Those noises make the perfect backdrop to my daydreams.


If you’re somewhere crowded, like during a long commute, pop in some earbuds and listen to instrumental music. It’ll help you drown out the noise around you without distracting you with lyrics you’re tempted to sing along to.


What about while you’re watching your kid’s soccer practice? Let your mind wander while you keep your eye on the ball.


Our brains are amazing contraptions, capable of doing more than one thing at a time. In fact, I find the more my body is engaged in something else, the more likely my mind is to wander into the land of my subconscious. That’s probably why I get my best ideas while I’m climbing the tallest hill at the end of our walk.


What If All I Daydream about Is Chocolate?

Then you’re not alone. Chocolate is my favorite thing to daydream about, too. But I get your point. If you’re going to let yourself daydream, you at least want to feel like you’re getting something out of it (other than a craving for sweets). Here are my best tips for getting your subconscious mind to do the hard work for you.


  1. Schedule a time to daydream. Sounds like an oxymoron right? After all, daydreaming is supposed to be something whimsical, something free and unfettered. But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen at the same time every day. It’s just like anything else. If you set aside a time to do it every day, your brain will be wired and ready to go when it’s time. I walk the dog at the same time every morning, for example, and my brain knows that this is its time to roam free.

  2. Direct your thoughts—or don’t. Some days, I might have a particular plot problem I’m trying to solve. So I might set out to deliberately think about that problem, letting my mind wander over all the possibilities. If my mind won’t go there, though, I don’t try to force it. Sometimes the subconscious has to do what the subconscious has to do, and you just need to give it time to work. The solution will probably surface at the most unexpected time. Which is why it’s important to also allow your daydreams to control you sometimes. In other words, don’t try to think about anything in particular. Just let your thoughts wander wherever they will, even if those thoughts aren’t particularly creative (maybe your subconscious wants to remind you that if you don’t clean the bathrooms soon you might have science fiction creatures crawling out of your drains, for example). You’ll be surprised how often a new idea or a solution to a problem that has been perplexing you pops into your brain unbidden.

  3. Be in tune with your surroundings—but not too much. In other words, keep your senses open to the unique sights, smells, and sounds around you. Your senses are how you—and your readers—experience the world, so you want to be aware of them at all times. You never know what the smell of lilac buds or the sight of a child laughing as she skips down the sidewalk will spark in your daydreams. At the same time, if you’re too focused on the world right in front of you, you’ll find it hard to sink into the world in your head. One way I keep from getting too caught up in the real world is by taking the same walking route most days. The sights are familiar enough that I don’t get lost in them—but I’ll be sure to notice anything unique or out of the ordinary. That frees my mind to picture the things happening inside my head at the same time I’m observing what’s happening outside it. Of course, sometimes experiencing a new location is great for sparking a whole slew of imaginings.

  4. Carry a voice recorder (or be old-fashioned and bring a pencil and paper with you). Daydreams can be fleeting. Sometimes, an idea that’s blindingly clear to you in the moment can disappear into the mist at the back of your brain as it’s pushed out by the next idea. There’s nothing worse than knowing you had a good idea, only to realize that you have no memory of what it was. That’s why I always carry my phone with me on walks or drives (and even keep a waterproof diver’s board in the shower) so that I can record my ideas. Of course, I don’t record every idea the moment I have it. I give myself time to mull it over, to tease it out first. But if it still calls to me after that, I record it. That doesn’t mean I’ll necessarily ever use it. But at least it gives me a chance to store it safely away where I can revisit it again whenever I want to. And knowing that it’s recorded gives my brain the freedom to move on to the next daydream without fighting to hold onto this one.

  5. Don’t try to quantify or compare how many notes you make from one day to the next. Some days I might have fifteen. Other days I have only one or none at all. The point isn’t to try to set a record for the number of ideas you generate but rather to let the ideas come when they come. Give your brain some slack when you can’t get your mind off all the other things you have to do that day. Since you’ve scheduled daydreaming time in every day, you can relax knowing tomorrow is another opportunity to let your brain frolic in fields of daydreams.


All of Which Is to Say, Do It

Give yourself permission to daydream. Not just when you have nothing else to do. Not just when you have a specific problem to solve. Every day.


And the next time someone tells you to get your head out of the clouds, tell them they should stick their head in a cloud sometime. They might be surprised at what they find.


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