The Key to Creativity: Zoning Out

Think back to your school days—there were always a handful of kids (one of whom may have been you) who the teacher constantly reprimanded for not focusing in class, who were constantly startled out of a daydream. In post secondary school, the ability to focus and concentrate on the task at hand is viewed as crucial to studying, note-taking, and essay-writing. Even most jobs these days revolve around a model of focusing on a single task at a time in order to succeed. When was the last time your boss or professor encouraged you to let your mind to wander while working on something? Probably never.

And it’s not good for us.

According to several studies, zoning out and letting your mind wander from the task at hand increases creativity and turns on two parts of the brain—the part that’s responsible for decision-making and problem-solving and the part that’s usually active when you’re resting—that were previously thought to only function separately. Reversely, when you consciously focus on solving a certain problem, you’re less likely to come up with an effective and creative solution than if you let you mind zone out without thinking about that problem. It’s all about letting your brain go into a state of free associations, where you’re unconsciously forging links between different ideas in a creative way that isn’t possible while you’re focusing on a complex task.

Remember a time when a brilliant idea or a solution to a problem that was nagging at you popped into your head out of left field? You were most likely listening to music, or doodling, or doing some mundane task that doesn’t really require much effort. This is a prime condition in which creative thoughts flourish. On the other hand, when we’re doing something like reading a complicated book or trying to add up some long numbers, our brains are too busy concentrating on the task to zone out and be creative. Meditating has been found to be a great way to achieve a similar state of mind-wandering as well.

The problem is, our society constantly encourages this state of mental exertion, and often look down on us when we let our minds wander. If there’s a complex project at work, our immediate solution is to hold a focused staff meeting involving brainstorms, idea generating, and planning—in other words, tons and tons of concentrating on one specific thing; rarely are we encouraged to forget about it for a while and let our ideas and creative juices simmer, especially since we’re already being bombarded with work that won’t give our brain a proper break.

This idea that focusing on a single complex task at a time is ideal while zoning out is a sign of failure is preached early in life: kids are being diagnosed more and more frequently, and at younger ages, with attention-deficit disorder. Those who don’t concentrate the way they’re expected to tend to fall behind in information-heavy subjects such as science and math, but these kids are often the same ones who thrive in creative fields like art. Simply put, the school system does not facilitate creative thinking and problem-solving as much as it encourages the memorization of facts.

There’s danger in working, studying, and living in a society where the majority of our time is spent over-exerting ourselves on complex tasks. When we’re used to—and are praised for—constantly racking our brains to get things done, we lose the ability to let them go into a mode of relaxation, and therein lose the ability to think creatively. And when we lose the ability to think creatively, problems become that much harder to solve and our work goes from innovating to commonplace. In other words, we lose one of the most extraordinary traits of being human—the capacity for creative thought.

So ask your boss for a mediation break, and bring up the issue with your teacher. If it weren’t for creative thinking, I doubt we’d have put a robot on Mars by now.

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