The value? of distraction and daydreaming

Daydreaming … a ticket to productivity?

I caught myself daydreaming … again. Staring out the window, while an unedited document languished on my laptop, cursor blinking. I am now a writer but I trained as a designer – effectively a creative problem solver. Writing slows the process of thought sufficiently to be recorded, and is a highly effective and creative problem-solving tool and process. I use techniques from both disciplines now, as a writer, and the line is certainly blurred.

But I realised I don’t necessarily solve all problems by working at them. Once the problem is identified, some solutions quickly float into my head unbidden; others are subconsciously resolved through a slow process of percolation. Can distraction and daydreaming actually play a positive role in the problem-solving/writing process?

Creativity and daydreaming: a connection

So … I ‘wasted’ more time by researching the act of distraction, and its relative benefits. (Surely, no research is ever wasted* … right?)

While maligned as procrastinatory behaviour, distraction can actually be a useful creative tool. Studies show a link between creativity and daydreaming; one published by Neuropsychologia suggests creativity is linked with a reduced ability to filter out less important information, which is largely in part due to ‘leaky’ sensory filters.

Sensory filters are sieve-like as they help filter out less important sensory information. This then allows us to focus on more relevant information. To have a ‘leaky’ sensory filter means there is a tear in the sieve, and pieces of so-called ‘irrelevant’ information can slip through, thus distracting us. So, will a collection of seemingly un-related* and leaked thoughts in my brain make me a better problem solver and writer? Will the act of daydreaming allow some of these seemingly useless ideas to coalesce into the resolution of a problem?

What do distraction and daydreaming mean for our work practices? Self-suppressive and self-expansive distractions

Dr. Jane McGonigal, world-renowned game designer and author of SuperBetter: The Power of Living Gamefully, describes two ways we engage with distracting activities: self-suppression and self-expansion. The former distractions are used to avoid negative experiences; while self-expansion uses distractions to promote positive ones.

If you ask yourself, “why am I engaging in this distracting behaviour?” and your response is to avoid a negative feeling, such as “because work is boring” or “I don’t want to deal with anything right now,” the distraction may be self-suppressive. Critically, McGonigal says, over time, distractions and their validations become a permanent escape from a perceived, uncomfortable reality, and eventually “self-suppression actually diminishes our sense of self-efficacy … we no longer see ourselves as people who can effectively solve our own problems”.

Conversely, self-expansive distractions involve achieving goals, building skills or attaining new knowledge; these distractions help us to build self-efficacy. If the question, “why am I doing this?” has responses such as, “I want to learn a new language,” or “I want to build a bigger career network”, then the approach is expansive.

Puzzles and digital games, for example, can give us the confidence to endure negative experiences, and tackle complex work challenges. I don’t feel as bad now about starting my day by failing to solve The Guardian cryptic crossword: it focuses my brain in preparation for the day’s mental workout and I get a small thrill of satisfaction when I do solve a clue.

Positive distractions: another example

This got me thinking about other ways distraction might be valuable. A colleague with PTSD has an assistance dog. The dog (I’ll call her Sophie, not her real name) has passed most of her tests and travels with her owner on public transport, and can enter shops and restaurants. I presumed Sophie only performed a physical role, by providing a barrier in crowded shopping areas, or preventing people talking too intimately with her owner.

I found Sophie has other benefits. She is trained to wake her owner at the first sense of a mid-sleep panic attack or to calm her after a nightmare. I was aware of these general service attributes; but there is another. In order to leave the house, Sophie needs to be dressed in her assistance dog jacket, complete with ID card, and put into a specialised harness. Her owner needs to plan her own needs around those of her dog: walking, dressing, feeding and grooming. What does this mean? While she is making these plans, she is not considering herself, and she can comfortably plan ahead instead of dwelling (often perilously) in the moment. Sophie effectively, and expansively, distracts her owner from potentially destructive internally-generated information.


I was mentally drafting this blog while avoiding a tougher piece of writing. Then at least three other blog topics came to mind, I designed a device for sorting recycled plastics and a tricky word conundrum slipped, resolved, into my consciousness. The act of daydreaming did let seemingly useless ideas coagulate. I guess my leaky sieve and use of self-expanding distraction worked.

Leave a Reply